On the battlefield: The Australian National Memorial in northern France

A huge 360deg immersive 4K videowall is the centre-piece of the Sir John Monash Australian National Centre in northern France to relay the stories of Australian soldiers fighting on the Western Front. Paul Milligan reports.

In a country rich in historical significance, it is surprising that the most expensive museum built in decades in France is in fact Australian.  The AUS$100 million (€63m) Sir John Monash Centre, named after an Australian military commander of the First World War, located in Villers-Bretonneuax in northern France, is the hub of the Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front.   The Centre tells Australia’s story of the First World War Western Front battlefields in the words of those who served.  The Centre fuses AV technology such as videowalls and touchscreens with historical relics to convey the truth behind the battles. 

The decision to build the 1,000sq m centre, funded by a branch of the Australian government called the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, was taken in 2015 by then-PM Tony Abbot, who said ‘the story of Australia on the Western Front should be much better known’.  The construction of the site was not without its problems however, during the excavation for the build the construction company found 234kg of unexploded bombs, and retrieved 180 personal artefacts, both from the First World War. 

The AV lead on the project was global AV company Orpheo Group, based in Grenoble, France.  It was first made aware of the project by one of its resellers (alongside integration work, Orpheo also produces audio guides for museums) in Australia, and entered a tender bid for the project.  After beating three other companies, Orpheo was awarded the contract in July 2017.  Orpheo was tasked with supplying AV to a several multimedia galleries, equipped with more than 450 LCD screens, a complete video integration and broadcasting system, show control technology and other equipment.  To do this Orpheo began looking for different companies to handle the different parts of the project.  French company Videmus, a specialist in show control, designed the control systems.  ADSI handled the labour and physical installation of the AV on site, with Digital Liance taking control of the installation of the Cisco IT network infrastructure. 

Sir John Monash theatre 2

The brief from the client was straightforward says Antoine Eisenstein, general manager, Orpheo.  “The main request from the customer was redundancy, they wanted to operate the site without technical staff, to have the capability to do it remotely.    If we need to go to site we will, but most of the site is designed to be accessed remotely.” 

To make things easy for the 110,000 annual visitors that are expected to come to the centre a bespoke app was created by Australian design consultancy Convergence Associates.   Downloaded as soon as you get to site via the Centre’s Wi-Fi, the app guides you through the experience.  “The idea behind the centre is synchronicity,” adds Eisenstein.  “When you arrive you are met by a screen which will detect your smartphone and stream audio to your device (it can handle Apple and Android) in your language.”  Using beacon technology the app determines a visitor’s location, launching video and other content on to one of the nearest screens, projectors and individual devices.  Outside, as visitors walk past the 2,000 gravesites, they hear stories of some of the soldiers lost on the battlefields.  They then move to the Australian National Memorial, which bears the names of more than 10,700 Australian soldiers who died in France and have no known grave.  The app integrates data from the National Archives of Australia so visitors can search the database and locate names of soldiers commemorated on the wall. 

Much of the content, designed to bring the Western Front to life, was produced by Australian media company Wildbear Entertainment.  The content features new and archival footage, animations, maps, music and soundscapes which are tailored for a personalised experience and delivered in three languages; English, French and German. 

The highlight of the Centre is a 483 sq m multimedia interpretive and immersive gallery experience designed by Convergence Associates.   The immersive gallery features an 8-minute video shown on a giant circle of 185 NEC LCD panels (a mix of 55-in and 46-in screens), in different configurations, all held together by 96 Peerless-AV videowall mounts, and processed using 96 Fx4 Datapath display wall controllers.  The content, all shot and shown in 4K 25, is driven by 60 servers each generating 4 x 4K, all managed and synchronised by Watchout.  These servers then drive the screens via an internal split for the main walls and via Datapath Fx4s for the more structured walls/columns.

 The immersive gallery also features spatial audio, so the video and audio is provided in 360 degrees, to fully immersive the viewer.  The experience is enhanced by smoke effects and light beams, all in sync with the video content.

Sir John Monash Floor map

“It is is the most important part of the tour, as it gives the viewer of an idea of what it was like to be on a battlefield,” says Eisenstein.    Why choose a videowall consisting of LCD panels, when blended projection or LED might have achieved the same result, with no (or very little noticeable) bezel? “If we used video projection or LED the resolution or brightness wouldn’t have been good enough, so we chose LCD panels to make sure it gives that immersive effect we wanted.”

Did Orpheo have to compromise at all on the AV within the budget they were given? “The client was very quality-orientated.  Like many projects the clients don’t want to adjust or change the original budget, but they were flexible enough because they wanted things to work well, so they would give us things we needed.”

The project was finished on budget and on time to open for Anzac Day in late April.  The historical importance of the Centre was reflected in the guest list for its inauguration, with included the French prime minister, Australian prime minister and Prince Charles from the UK.

Kit List

Barco projectors
Chief mounts
Datapath videowall controllers
Dataton Watchout software
Medialon show control
Meyer Sound loudspeakers
NEC Displays Solutions LCD panels
Peerless-AV videowall mounts

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