Doing Business in Museum AV

Some of the most innovative work in pro AV is happening at the nation's museums. And it's not just the exhibitions.
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Doing Business in Museum AV

Some of the most innovative work in pro AV is happening at the nation's museums. And it's not just the exhibitions.

At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., integrators installed touch-panel displays for the museum's Monet exhibition in order to better engage visitors—young and old.

If any sector should have ground to a halt during the worst recession in about 70 years, it should have been museums. However, as dependent as they are on donations and tourism—both casualties of an economic downturn—28 percent of museums are sticking with expansion plans, according to the most recent Association of Art Museum Directors survey. And two-thirds say that endowment income increased or remained the same in 2010, which helps explain why only 4 percent of museums are deferring expansion.

If those stats are enough to make you consider expanding into the museum market, be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting for projects to come to fruition—as in years or even decades.

"The museum market is not a box-sale market," says Sue Lepp, senior vice president at Design and Production (D&P), a Lorton, Va.–based integrator whose recent projects include the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum in Atlanta. "It used to be that five years was the minimum development time for a museum project."

Museums' Catch-22

As museums hurry to incorporate new technology in order to appeal to tech-savvy visitors, they must strike a balance. According to the study "Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures," from the American Association of Museums, 46 percent of museum visits were via websites in 2006, and that share was expected to rise.

Looking ahead to 2034, after years of creating new experiences to draw people in their doors, the study says, "Museums confront many decisions about the collection, presentation, and preservation of new forms of virtual objects. Meanwhile, as the world continues to go digital (and progressively virtual)—and as the cost of storage, distribution and processing power continues to plummet—people find themselves further divorced from the real." The study's authors continue, "In an increasingly atomized and digitized world, people still have a core desire for human engagement and authenticity. Museums will be oases of the real in an increasingly virtual world."

Lepp says that she's seen master plans that are 20 years old because that's how long it sometimes takes to raise enough funding to start construction. So for integrators chasing the museum opportunity, success—make that survival—is as much about managing cash flow as it is about coming up with stellar designs.

"Jobs tend to run for years," says Bob Haroutunian, principal at Amelia Island, Fla.–based PPI Consulting. "I'm working on museums right now that don't open until 2016, 2018. So the business model is different."

AV pros who can live with those terms often find some pleasant surprises, such as how willing to spend big bucks museums tend to be. For example, when the directors of the Mint Museum of Art were building a new facility in downtown Charlotte, N.C., they knew that they had to compete with several other nearby museums—including the NASCAR Hall of Fame—for a finite pool of tourist dollars (see "Install Snapshot: Competing for Visitors," next page). That strategy juiced the signage budget.

Art Museums Feeling the Love

According to the Association of Art Museum Directors 2011 State of North America's Art Museums Survey:

  • 85 percent of museums reported that they increased or maintained their exhibition programming in 2010.
  • Nearly 80 percent maintained or increased staffing during 2010.
  • 63 percent reported an increase in giving.
  • But 49 percent reported a drop in government support.

"They knew they didn't want static boards," says Bruce Banbury, president of Charlotte-based Video Systems of the Carolinas, which worked on the project. "They didn't want rear-lit translucent screens for upcoming events. They wanted something with video that looked techy."

That something was a 70-inch NEC Display Solutions LCD, which had just hit the market. "When these first came out, they were $11,300," Banbury says. "They just ponied right up and said, 'What's the biggest thing we can put in the lobby for upcoming events?' "

"It was fun because it wasn't driven by budget as much as it was, 'What's the latest, greatest thing we can put in here?' " Banbury explains. "They were willing to spend the money to compete."


A growing number of museums are adding or upgrading facilities that show documentaries and other video content, including Imax and 3D versions. "With movie theaters transitioning from analog film to digital projection, and a growing mass of content that's available only in digital formats, museum organizers realize the need to update to digital projection," says Dave Duncan, Texas Instruments DLP Cinema manager.

And for many, interactivity is the name of the game, meaning technology that blends AV and IT to engage visitors. And it's"interactivity to the extent that it doesn't increase their staffing for maintenance is big in larger facilities that are seeing millions of visitors a year," Lepp says. "Those that have strong IT groups embrace technology more readily and those that don't are combining their IT and AV groups in order to support the technical components of the systems. Generally, museums are seeking higher-tech interactivity, especially touch tables and larger-screen, computer-based interactives. They are well aware that they have to engage youth in a compelling manner to compete. And the museums that are operating for profit put an even higher value on the high-tech, big-impact experience to draw more people in the door."

In fact, Lepp says, interactivity is often so important to museums that the AV systems that support it are usually considered mission-critical. "Because interactivity … is so powerful, we have not seen those budgets trimmed as quickly as physical budgets," she says. D&P is currently working on a music museum that is facing budget challenges, but the AV systems and supporting software programs are considered the last resort for budget cuts. And a year ago, the company finished work on the Kentucky Derby Museum, which ultimately opted for a higher-end Planar Clarity Matrix videowall because of its impact and low-maintenance features.

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Doing Business in Museum AV

Some of the most innovative work in pro AV is happening at the nation's museums. And it's not just the exhibitions.

Besides tourism, some museums also are competing for conferences and meetings by adding rooms, auditoriums, and other venues that cater to area companies seeking a place for off-site meetings. These events reduce a museum's reliance on donations and visitor fees by providing an additional revenue stream. One extreme example is Los Angeles' Skirball Cultural Center.


Design and Production installed interactive maps for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

"Approximately 25 percent of the revenue of the whole organization was spun off from having events," says Rich Cherry, the former director of operations. "In order to do that well, you have to compete with the best of the best. But a lot of times, the AV side of it is not quite where it should be. For enlightened museum directors, there is a revenue stream to be had by improving the technology to a level that makes it an attractive option for corporate groups to buy space."

Install Snapshot: Competing for Visitors

When the Mint Museum of Art opened a second facility this past October, a record-breaking 17,000 people stopped by in the first three days. The Charlotte, N.C., museum is hoping that AV will help pack them in on a daily basis.

Located in Charlotte's business district, the new 145,000-square-foot Mint Museum Uptown includes a three-sided outdoor kiosk featuring two 5-inch Sanyo LCD displays (pictured below) that highlight upcoming events. Digital signage might seem like an odd choice for a museum that specializes in American and European art, but it was part of a strategy to attract younger demographics and to compete with nearby museums, including Discovery Place and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"That was part of the long-range discussion with the museum," says Bruce Banbury, president of Charlotte-based Video Systems of the Carolinas, which worked on the project. "For the 18-to-50-year-old crowd, they're competing for the same dollar that everyone else is."

Besides the kiosk, the Mint Museum also chose a 70-inch NEC LCD to make a splash in the lobby. A series of 22-inch displays reside by each elevator to provide wayfinding information, to the facility's conference rooms and fifth-floor ballroom, for example, all of which are rented out to supplement donations and visitor fees. Indeed, the Mint designed the Uptown facility partly to attract nearby companies, such as Bank of America and Duke Energy, which might be looking for off-site meeting space. "To have a room for your own benefit, and to create a revenue stream when you're not using it, makes a lot of sense," Banbury says.

Like many enterprises, the Mint knew that compelling content was key for getting the most out of its digital signage investment. Video Systems provided access to a staff member who came out of the desktop-publishing world to specialize in digital signage. "The Mint hired her for 90 days—60 days up front and 30 days post [installation]—because they wanted it to look professional and clean on day one," Banbury says. "They didn't want to go through a learning curve. That's another angle for AV integrators: To win these large jobs and get this kind of digital technology into museums, the creative is something you need to be able to deliver."—T.K.

— Tim Kridel

Besides rental revenue, museums also can justify AV upgrades if they help further cultural goals such as community outreach. For example, one room at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., has a Tandberg videoconferencing system used partly for communicating with schools whose students are scheduled to visit.

"The Tandberg system was purchased to do some of the initial, previsit things with teachers so they wouldn't have to come into the museum [twice]," says Brandon Wilcox, the museum's systems support specialist. "We could show them the presentation before they got here."

In other cases, museums use videoconferencing or streaming systems for distance learning, such as when a curator makes a presentation. Some museums have cart-mounted, wireless video systems that a curator can wheel around from exhibit to exhibit to discuss them with a remote audience.


Yet another potential revenue stream is digitizing archives and then selling access to them, as in the case of museums that specialize in broadcast history. That content also can be used within the facility, by streaming it to the museum's digital signage, for example.

"Customers like the Library of Congress are using our migration system, SAMMA, to digitize and save their videotapes, which degrade over time," says Susan Crouse, Front Porch Digital director of product marketing. "Museums might be able to start thinking about repurposing their video assets so they can raise money. [With] our DivArchive and DivaPublish systems, they could publish assets online and get advertising dollars."

Museums also seem to be increasing spending on AV gear that enables interactivity. Sometimes that's a touch table with ceiling-mounted projects that throw down an image when a patron's hand breaks an infrared beam. Other museums are using devices such as iPads to encourage interactivity between visitors.

"A map is cool, but being able to run an image of an army across a map against someone else's army is even cooler," says Cherry, director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego.

The collaborative is noteworthy because it's a rarity: a nonprofit organization created to help the Balboa Park facility's member museums with technology projects. Most museums don't have an extensive in-house team to handle AV, something that limits their willingness to invest in big tech projects. In other cases, they're looking for integrators to take on that task, creating a long-term relationship and revenue stream—one more factor that AV pros should be aware of when considering the museum market.

"Museums are well aware that they have to engage youth in a compelling manner to compete," says Dale Panning, D&P senior systems engineer. "The museums that are operating for profit put an even higher emphasis on the high-tech, big-impact experience to draw more people in the door."

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