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PODCAST 191-1: American Prohibition Museum Comes to Life with A/V Binloop HD

Attraction Designer Ryan McCurdy is going to tell us how it all works with the Alcorn McBride Binloop HD and other AV gear Pt 1


SVC Podcast – Show Notes –

In this edition of the SVC Podcast, Contributing Editor Bennett Liles talks with Attraction Designer Ryan McCurdy about his technical setup for the new American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia. Operated by Historic Tours of America, the museum has 13 galleries and takes visitors through the entire 13-year Prohibition era with live actors interacting with lights, video and sound effects.

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This is the SVC Podcast from Sound & Video Contractor Magazine with Attraction Designer Ryan McCurdy. We’ve got show notes and product links for this interview and other SVC podcasts at

Prohibition was an incredibly interesting time in American history and the emotionally charged 18th Amendment carried a lot of unintended consequences. Now, there’s a museum in Savannah, Georgia dedicated to that exciting period and Attraction Designer Ryan McCurdy is going to tell us how it all works with the Alcorn McBride Binloop HD and other AV gear. That’s right up ahead on the SVC Podcast.

Good to have you getting with us for this one, Ryan. Independent attraction designer, this time working on the American Prohibition Museum down in Savannah. I wouldn’t have immediately thought of that but now that I’ve gone to the web site and checked it out, it gets more interesting every time I look at it. You put this place together for Historic Tours of America so tell us about them first.

Absolutely. And I would count on them to come up with the idea of doing something like the Prohibition Museum, which at first blush it sounds like something that you wouldn’t think about filling an entire museum with. But it’s a great idea. It’s been really well executed. Historic Tours is a specialty tourism company. They operate in a number of American cities. They actually have six cities that they are primarily in. They work on trollies. They have museums. They have experiential. They have specialty ghost tours in all of these cities. The ones up and down the east coast and the ones that I’ve worked in specifically are Boston, Key West, St. Augustine and Savannah. They also have a D.C. location and a San Diego location and they’re a great company. I’ve been a contractor for them off and on for about nine years. [Timestamp: 2:03]

Certainly no shortage of history in Savannah, Georgia. I’ve been there many times. And this turns out to be such an interesting topic. At first I thought a law that was passed and then it was undone, but it had such a range of unintended consequences. So how did it the museum for this happen? Did Historic Tours come to you and say we’ve got this Prohibition museum idea and we want you to set it all up?

Well, actually I think it was originally the president, Ed Swift III, who had this idea. It’s always been an interesting period of American History to him, and he was very familiar with these unintended consequences which include the federal penal system, it includes the way income tax became a necessary part of American life. All of these things that this 13-year swath from 1920 to 1933, this very seemingly lost in time 13 years, has affected everything that’s happened into the 21st century. So yes, I actually just luckily happened to be at the original summit of the designers and presidential team. I was in Savannah on other business and they didn’t have any full plans at that point. They said do you want to come to this empty space that may have just been purchased for something and hear what they’re thinking about? So I got to sit in a roundtable, and actually they had just bought the space and it was gutted, so we didn’t even have chairs. The group of about 14 of us sat in a circle, crossed our legs and started talking about what has now become one of the jewels of their museum empire. [Timestamp: 3:33]

And it’s located in a prime spot right in the heart of the historic downtown area on the City Market. Great place to see a lot of a very eventful past and there are already a lot of tour stops just near there so it’s a great location.

Oh, it’s perfect for them. In fact, for years and year the trolley has been stopping at what is called City Market and it happens to be that the stop was now about 100 feet from the entrance to the museum. And Savannah’s square footage can be hard because there’s not a lot of the downtown district. So for them to be able to have the second floor across a number of first floor buildings and restaurants has been very beneficial. And their major thing, because they operate in a lot of smaller southern cities, their big mission – the art department and the executive department – is to make square footage count, which is sort of where I came in. They had 7,000 ideas and just barely 7,000 square feet. So the question was how do we put all of this into our space? [Timestamp: 4:33]

So take us into this place. I believe there are 13 galleries involved in it so what have you got to see when you get in there?

Absolutely. I think one of the genius ideas at the very beginning was that this was always planned to be a linear museum that you get history from right about 1920 to 1933, the beginning and the end of prohibition, and to use the square footage we have in a logical way. You are on one path the entire time, but you are not being rushed to experience any of the galleries at any particular speed so you can encounter the history in the way that it interests you. And we find there’s a lot of people who are particularly interested in the legalities from the very beginning, so they’ll stay in the first several galleries. And there’s people that are much more interested, as I can appreciate, in our working and completely operable speakeasy, which is towards the back end of the museum. And you see a lot of people, especially as the museum has taken on more public knowledge, people that are moving through the history at the beginning to get to the drinking part at the end. But what’s great about historic tours is even though the speakeasy is fully functional, has its own menu, has its own incredible mixology staff, it’s very historic as well. And the history comes first, that’s the way the speakeasy is laid out, the way it’s been designed; the reader rails and the staff’s knowledge of their own time period. [Timestamp: 5:57]

I would think that one of the more challenging aspects of this would be that you’ve got AV machinery, speakers, video playing and you’ve got live actors, who might like to ad lib sometimes, mixed with media playbacks that don’t change or adapt to what the actors are doing.

Of course, yes. And the museum manager, whose name is Kayla Black, spearheaded the team that developed all this for the actors. Obviously the video is finite. All of the video loops, some of it is 45 seconds looping, some of it is six or seven minutes looping. I think the longest looping video that we have in the space is about nine-and-a-half minutes. And so what she did, rather than write scripts for the actors that they’re going to repeat 700 times a day, is she compiled dossiers of the history of the period for them – characters they could be, people that were likely to have fought different things during the time. And so every actor spends their different days at the museum in a number of different characters at different points of the history of the museum, which encourages their fresh interactions with the audiences every day. It also gives them, instead of seven or eight lines, it gives them pages and pages of material that they’ve memorized like a traditional tour guide would. And they’re being able to channel that information and put it into the actor perspective, which I think is really the only way to efficiently mix technology and actors. I’ve seen museums that have mixed them far less efficiently and I think this really great idea at the center of the museum is giving them a novelization of their own history and then asking them to memorize and be prepared to use it as it interest them. [Timestamp: 7:37]

You used the Alcorn-McBride Binloop HD as sort of the heart of the system and I think you’ve used that on a number of projects before.

I have. In fact, the first thing I did with Historic Tours is still using, you know, we’ve switched out the V4 at the center of that first exhibition I think twice in – I think it’s actually coming up on a decade of operation. But if I’m not mistaken it is still the original DMX machine in that exhibition. So yes, Alcorn-McBride has proven – I’ve been using them, like I said, for about a decade – the pieces work, the customer service is excellent. And then I think what is most important to me is that the length of operation is very long. They don’t burn out. They don’t misfire. They don’t boot up wrong. They’re just these rock-solid machines. And we really needed that for Prohibition Museum because every guest is being fed an extraordinary amount of visual content and we knew it needed to be something that it would turn on every morning and be completely rock solid. [Timestamp: 8:40]

And as the actors interact with video playback, what sort of surfaces are these videos projected onto? You don’t have a lot of room for people to get back and look at the whole thing.

No, and that’s actually been – that was another thing that’s been developed extensively at Historic Tours. It’s the third time we’ve done it in a museum for Historic Tours of America. It was first done in St. Augustine at the Oldest Store, which I think we did a podcast about over half a decade ago now. It was then done in Boston at the Tea Party Ships and Museum. And it’s this concept of the talking portrait, which I think is a really clever idea. But unlike the Harry Potter use of the talking portrait, which is purely as a visual gag, this is a communicative device and the actors have memorized and are able to speak back to it. But instead of a projection it’s a monitor embedded into a wall that’s been fauxed out. It has a crackle finish on top and then a frame that goes around that which usually distorts the size of the monitor a little bit so that it tricks the audience into thinking that what they’re looking at is actually an antique frame. And the great thing about the Prohibition Museum is it’s actually two monitors that speak to themselves and also speak to a live actor. One of them is oval; one of them is square – very different sizes, but the eye lines are complete between them. So we didn’t have to project, which was great. We used Samsung monitors with boot-up ready technology using basically straight runs of HDMI from the equipment central and they are being frame locked by the Alcorn-McBride software and hardware. As a result they are probably running 250-300 times a day. [Timestamp: 10:22]

And when people walk in, the machinery has to know where and the system has to detect that the museum visitors have arrived and are all in place so how are the sound and video playback triggered?

Right. They actually are triggered by a foot pedal which the actor has control over. It’s the one part of the museum where people are gathered up into a slightly larger group until they’re released to go forward. And it’s right at 1920 when people are still arguing, and so the portraits are actually two figures of the time arguing about the pros and cons of prohibition. So the actor is able to stop the group, gather them up in front of this wall of portraits, and then triggers the sequence, which also allows the actor the opportunity to know when their dialogue comes in. And it’s actually very similar to the way that the portraits are used in Boston where it’s another dialogue between the portraits that the actor triggers. Every other place in the museum that we use video it’s on a stylized loop, but this is the one part where they are frozen until they are called upon. They’re triggered from the floor and then they go back into a ready mode, which is also frozen until they’re used again. [Timestamp: 11:28]

Attraction Designer Ryan McCurdy good to be talking to you again. It’s been a long time. The American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia. A fascinating idea for an interesting historical era that got me more interested the more I read on it. In Part 2 next week we’ll get more into the tech details of lighting, sound and video on this. Ryan, thanks for being with us and we’ll see you again next week.

Great. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much, Bennett.

Good having you with us for the SVC Podcast with Ryan McCurdy. We’ve always got plenty of show notes and product links at Next week Ryan will get into more technical detail on the inner mechanics of the American Prohibition Museum so get back with us for the next SVC Podcast.

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