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Interactive Signage Augments National Portrait Gallery Exhibits

Museums increasingly augment their physical exhibits with interactive technology that allows visitors to explore a wealth of digitized material and information far beyond the content in the museum's possession

Interactive Signage Augments National Portrait Gallery Exhibits

Apr 14, 2009 12:00 PM,
By John W. DeWitt

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., chose systems integrator Nelson White Systems when it decided to augment its exhibits with interactive digital signage running Omnivex software.

Museums increasingly augment their physical exhibits with interactive technology that allows visitors to explore a wealth of digitized material and information far beyond the content in the museum’s possession. Case in point: the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., whose exhibits feature poets, presidents, visionaries, actors, activists, and other individuals who have shaped U.S. history and influenced the culture. Using 19in. Elo TouchSystems touchscreen LCD panels powered by Omnivex software effectively tripled the number of works by famed Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block, complementing the 60 original Herb Block cartoons on display.

The digital signage software, provided by Baltimore-based AV systems integrator and distributor Nelson White Systems, replaced an inhouse solution developed by IT staff at the National Portrait Gallery. The museum upgraded to the Omnivex platform after identifying the need to provide—without custom programming—the ability for visitors to interact with a large volume of digitized content via multilevel submenus, explains Jim Oremland, the account executive at Nelson White Systems who steered the museum to the Omnivex solution.

Signage software has simplified management of digital displays, according to Oremland. Instead of being limited by templates, museum staffers have been able to easily configure menu-based custom display applications. The software also allows the museum to manage the signage network remotely, from its design studio – though Oremland says staffers also like having the simple option to upload new content to the screens via thumb drives. Moreover, signage software has simplified the task of integrating a diversity of video and graphical source file formats.

“[Museum staff] can to take media files in all different formats and wrap a touchscreen system around it,” Oremland explains. “You prepare menus and add to the system, tell it where the menus will lead, and connect content. [The software] can manage video in MPEG, AVI, and other formats [along with] static JPEG images or any other standard graphic file, and can display them all within the same interface.”

For the end users, museum visitors, interacting with a digital signage platform provides user-controlled access to much more exhibit content.

“Looking at history of a cartoonist, visitors use the touch screen to bring up things that they might not be able to see otherwise in an analog way,” Oremland says. With the signage software, this user-controlled content can include digitized versions of original printed content, videos, and other rich media relevant to the exhibit. The museum has incorporated the digital signage system into a second exhibit profiling the actress Lucille Ball. Visitors can use the museum’s kiosks to view television shows, movies, and other media featuring the actress.

“Digital signage is not just signage any more. Today, its interactive capabilities as well as its informational functions are making signage really attractive to a lot of varied users,” Oremland says. However, he notes that there is a creative usage growth curve for any organization that implements digital signage. “Everyone starts with a single idea. But once they see the capabilities, it becomes an expansion project. For an integrator, the biggest thing is opening people’s eyes to seeing that it can be so much more than the narrow applications they envision.”

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