The Emperor’s new show

AUTHOR: Inavate

Last year, The British Museum transformed its reading room into an impressive exhibition space. Now, with a second exhibit unveiled, InAVate went along to see how the original AV equipment had been reused.

In September 2007 an army of terracotta warriors invaded the hallowed reading room at the British library. Exploring the life and reign of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, the hugely successful First Emperor exhibition ran for seven months.

Four months later and the space has been commandeered again, this time by the Emperor Hadrian.

Despite controlling empires hundreds of years and many miles apart the two emperors have a lot in common: iron rules, enduring legacies and Barco projectors.

The British Museum originally purchased eight iConH250 Barco projectors for The First Emperor exhibition. By the time it was underway the museum was already talking to systems integrator, Sysco about how the equipment could be used for the next reading room exhibition.

Sysco has been involved with The British Museum for some time and were already on-board when the decision was made to use the reading room as a new space.

The integrator has been more involved with the Hadrian exhibition, which runs from July 24 to October 26, 2008, as it is providing maintenance services, previously handled by Barco for First Emperor.

Chris Mothersdale, operations manager at Sysco, described how the room was used effectively, while still allowing access to the books.

“A temporary floor was put in place, underneath is a completely open space and books can still be accessed for research.”

Upstairs, the circular space now houses artefacts from Hadrian’s reign. Above the show area, projectors, which provide images designed to give a background to where the artefacts were found, sit on a suspended projection ring. Projectors are mounted on Barco projector mounts, which give vertical and horizontal shift.

Mothersdale said the weight limit of the ring caused some headaches.

“Originally the ring had to be a certain weight but with the Barco projectors it was a lot heavier. We weren’t allowed on the ring at the same time as the projectors. So when it came to focussing there was some interesting rigging needed in order to get behind the projectors.”

However that has all changed now.

Mothersdale: “The weight loading has been upgraded so we can get engineers on the ring at the same time. This has been a big help.”

Sysco worked with the museum and its designers regarding the images to be shown. Newangle, a creative digital agency, was drafted in to provide the media content.

Four images are projected around the outside of the circular display area. Two projectors run solo, while the other six work in two groups of three. The projectors all run at 1080p resolution.

Mothersdale pinpointed the display projected behind a 3D model of Hadrian’s villa near Tivoli as a focal point of the exhibition.

“Three, edge blended, iCon250s produce views of the surroundings of the buildings at the villa. The aim was to create the effect of looking through the 3D model to scenery behind. The curator is very happy with the realisation of this plan.”

Each projector is attached to a PC. A Dataton Watchout system provides edge blending and all projectors are controlled by Cue show control, supplied through Beyerdynamic.

Sysco has programmed the show control system to switch on and off, morning and night, seven days a week.

The Cue system is also used for the pre-show display. While visitors wait to enter the exhibition they can view images provided by two Christie LX37s on Unicol brackets. This area is new for the Hadrian exhibition. The museum used its own projectors and Sysco supplied Audica Microline speakers and Microzone amplifiers.

Moving back inside the reading room Mothersdale said a lot of the cabling was existing from The First Emperor exhibition.

“When working on the First Emperor exhibition we found some cable runs were right on the limit of the signal length,” he said. “So we used extenders for RS232 and were originally going to have all the PCs off the ring.

“Because of restrictions in the museum we had to use a different route and found out quite quickly that the distances to send DVI across Cat5 were too long. We thought it would be well under 100m but it turned out more like 115-120m.

“To solve the problem all PCs are local to their projectors and housed on the ring. They are on the network and controlled by the Cue system. The projectors are controlled by RS232 via Cat5 extenders and we’ve had no problems”

The pre-show area is a bolt-on to the existing control system and Sysco has run a couple of extra network cables out to the pre-show area.

“A small Cue system out there bolts onto the existing Cue system and acts as a slave,” said Mothersdale.

Back down on the floor, Mothersdale described how Sysco fulfilled the museum’s desire for a ‘talking table’.

“This was a table they wanted to have audio description over,” he said. “A PIR (passive infrared sensor) triggers a commentary when movement is detected.

“We decided on an InOut MP3 player, timed to come on in the morning and turn off at night. We’ve used an RSF highly directional speaker, based on Holosonic technology.

Mothersdale says the ‘talking table’ concept has proved an interesting engineering challenge.

“The focus of audio is very narrow and tends to bounce off everything, particularly glass and wood. It took a lot of careful planning to get the sound to focus only on the visitor standing by the table but the end result has worked very well.”

For commentary, in a variety of languages, around the whole exhibition Acoustiguide’s Opus Touch handsets are provided for an audio tour

Mothersdale explained that Sysco will continue to maintain the equipment with service visits scheduled for every four weeks.

“We are running single lamps on the Barco projectors this time, as opposed to the dual lamp system employed for The First Emperor exhibition. This is a more economical solution and, whilst the dual lamp system worked really well with the media projected last time, this time brighter colours mean single lamp is sufficient.

“Furthermore, when you are blending images and running dual lamp, if a lamp fails the image doesn’t quite match up.”

He continued: “If a lamp fails it will switch to a new lamp and the Cue system will report back to our office, via email.”

A simple control panel operates the whole system. This allows museum staff to easily extend the hours the system will run for, a particularly useful feature for evening corporate events. Staff can also simply re-set the system in the event of a projector failure.

Given the grandeur and success of the two Emperor’s exhibitions it is perhaps with a little sadness that the museum suggests this may be the last invasion of the reading room.

However, Mothersdale brightly concluded: “Plans to create a bigger exhibition space are already being discussed, which will provide more opportunity for installations in the future.”