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Museum Uses AV To Connect With Visitors

A combination of off-the-shelf and custom AV solutions meets institutional, cost, and performance guidelines for the Smithsonian's newest interactive exhibit.

Museum Uses AV To Connect With Visitors

A combination of off-the-shelf and custom AV solutions meets institutional, cost, and performance guidelines for the Smithsonian’s newest interactive exhibit.


CHALLENGE: Install a complex array of interactive exhibits at the Smithsonian Institute’s “The Price of Freedom” display that meet institutional technical guidelines without exceeding the budget.

SOLUTION: Use a combination of affordable AV solutions based on show controllers and custom software, testing the components before installation to ensure that the system effectively meets the museum’s technical requirements.

THE SMITHSONIAN’S new “The Price of Freedom” exhibition is an 18,000-square-foot exhibit that explores United States military history through the interpretation of wars as defining episodes in U.S. history, concluding with a fully automated theater featuring a large-screen History Channel video entitled “The Ultimate Sacrifice.”

Lorton, VA-based AV design and integration firm Design & Production, under contract to Turner Construction, was tasked with creating the AV and lighting systems for the new (November 2004) exhibition within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Sue Lepp, senior vice president of Design & Production and project manager for “The Price of Freedom,” says the exhibit’s clean displays veil a complex set of financial and technical processes that enabled the project to meet the Smithsonian’s recently implemented new requirements for interactive displays as well as its budget. “The contract value is just under $700,000 for AV systems,” Lepp says. “This was after a significant value engineering effort that saved just under $200,000.”

For example, Design & Production Senior Engineer Dale Panning says the Vietnam-era display he created, which incorporates a “poor man’s video wall” using a matrixed six-channel feed to 16 1960s-era TVs, accounted for nearly half of the $200,000 savings alone. Lepp says that allowed the Smithsonian’s budget to enhance other aspects of the installation. “A museum never has sufficient funds for everything they want to incorporate,” she says. “Finding cost-efficiency in equipment and installation sequencing contributes to a more complete project.”

In addition to the budget issues were the museum’s more stringent revised operational requirements. “Smithsonian museum system requirements involve not only the unmanned continuous operation of systems, but have now incorporated the daily monitoring of display device function at the basement control room,” Lepp says, noting that this facility has only three full-time staffers to oversee all of its interactive displays.

To address this issue, the integrator used an AMX Netlinx Show Control system running Design & Production customized software to monitor functions such as lamp hours for projectors and log error events. “Through the AMX Netlinx show control system, the maintenance staff automates start and stop of the total gallery,” Lepp says. “System overrides are programmed for special events or gallery-wide muting of audio for scheduled receptions. Whether by web access, desktop access, remote verification of programs through the multiplexer, or control room-based operation, the museum staff can quickly identify operation problems and take control of individual source equipment at any time with impact to the rest of the show.”

Design & Production also made an early decision to use Pioneer DVD-7400 DVD players throughout the exhibit. “In a museum environment that doesn’t have significant support staff or changing needs for program material, the owners are still opting for DVD players,” says Lepp.

To achieve full remote control capability, the integrator’s first challenge was to identify cable pathways with the engineering team to service the various exhibit environments and provide detailed input for electrical engineering to support the systems. “Our engineers worked with the project team to further define audio channel requirements, speaker placement, structural support requirements, and in some cases interactive exhibit components and system engineering,” Lepp says. “The compilation of the sub-system requirements was then correlated to the central control room system requirements.”

A sub-control room near the display is filled with the system’s rack-mounted electronics. A LAN-type data network connects to the basement main control room location using Cat5 cabling. It runs parallel to the audio and video cabling, all controlled via an AMX Netlinx controller. “That made for shorter runs to the rack locations and just three pathways to the main control room,” Panning says.

Some of the specific station points of the exhibit are quite complex, such as a themed-event diorama on the first shots fired at Lexington, MA, using a NEC WT-600 mirrored reflection projector.

Another custom interactive, “Rosie the Riveter,” uses a reproduction of a WWII rivet gun and takes the visitor through the sensitive steps required to properly rivet war planes with a series of custom electronics including LED lights, sensors, message displays, and AMX control equipment using custom software. Another custom interactive involves AMX Netlinx control of a mechanical turntable that revolves through three scenes of puppet activities discussing the events that led to the Boston Tea Party. The audio and captioning program, which is driven by a single Pioneer DVD-7400 DVD player, provides the timeline to sequence through a puppet show. (See sidebar for more information on how this puppet show works.)

An interactive called “The Living Room War” provides visitors a view of Vietnam-era news coverage on an array of 16 period TVs. This was accomplished with the help of a unique vendor, Harry Poster, a Hackensack, NJ-based service that sources and rehabilitates vintage TV sets. Lepp and Panning used the service to source the 16 vintage TV sets, which the company renovated with the working components of commercial Sylvania and Panasonic TVs.

Instead of using a videowall processor, six Pioneer DVD-7400 DVD players are fed into an Extron MAV1616 video switcher, and then into a Panasonic WJMS424 quad splitter. This system is controlled by an Alcorn McBride VT-16 show controller, which is kept in frame-accurate sync with an Alcorn McBride SMPTE generator. The eight-channel audio for this show is delivered through Rane ME-60 equalizers, QSC 168 amplifiers, and Tannoy I-5 speakers.


Alcorn McBride –
Broadcast Tools –
Extron –
Panasonic –
Pioneer –
Rane –
Sony –
Tannoy –
Wohler –

A video loss sensing system is used throughout the gallery via AMX VSS2 video sync sensors. All 32 video signals are monitored using a system of Panasonic WJ-FS1616 duplex multiplexers and Sony PVM-20N5U monitors. The audio is switched and monitored with Broadcast Tools 16×2 audio switchers and Wohler AMP1A-2S self-powered audio monitors.

To ensure that the solution would work before it was installed in the exhibit, the system underwent significant factory and pre-site testing, which Lepp says was key to the project’s success. “The exhibit trades rarely have the luxury of turning over a clean, dust-free, conditioned environment until days or even hours before opening,” Lepp says. “Our solution is the FAT (Factory Acceptance Test). Months before scheduled project opening, we have fully assembled racks tested at our facility and set up for client inspection. We set up temporary display devices and integrate any specialty items such as push buttons, temporary software, and custom needs. The show control and operational issues of the system are all solved before equipment is due for delivery onsite. The space and time allocated to a FAT test saves the owner and contractor a lot of frustration and aids in keeping ‘Murphy’ under control.”

Museum displays are becoming more complex and more high profile, which Lepp says is ironic given the increased difficulty in finding funds for them. “There is no margin for error or lateness,” she says. “Museums are becoming quite a balancing act.”

Creating the puppet show in the Smithsonian’s “The Price of Freedom” exhibit was the project’s most complex component. The puppets used in the exhibit are hardly conventional marionettes —they use several servo motors similar to the type used on remote-controlled hobby airplanes and cars, and an AMX Netlinx controller runs the show from a program on a Pioneer DVD-7400 DVD player. Lorton, VA-based AV design and integration firm Design & Production designed the puppets’ skeletons and robotics, while the puppets themselves were fleshed out by Blue Sky Productions, Lorton, VA.

There are actually three versions of each puppet character assigned to a circular stage that is divided into 120-degree sectors. Design & Production Senior Engineer Dale Panning explains that because budget constraints prevented the use of a curtain, lights consisting of a Clipstrip lighting system projected on the stage scrim were used to create a “virtual” curtain. The lighting system also allows the use of a variety of small splits and flood lights.

The museum also wanted the puppets to move about the stage. To do so affordably, Panning says Design & Production used some conventions such as slots in the stage to allow the puppets to move around.

“The challenge was designing a system that was effective, yet within limited budgetary funds for the AV components,” says Sue Lepp, senior vice president of Design & Production and project manager for “The Price of Freedom” exhibit. “The $20,000 budget for all mechanical, electronics, and AV devices, including labor and programming demanded careful coordination to take the most advantage of repetitive commands and movement of the characters.”

Dan Daley is a veteran freelance journalist and author, specializing in media and entertainment technology and business sectors. He can be reached at [email protected]

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