Art in focus at The Burrell Collection

A little creativity goes a long way at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Paul Milligan speaks to the integrator who gave a new perspective to centuries-old artworks.

If we can discard the artifacts and treasures inside it for just one moment, the creation of the Burrell Collection, a museum in Glasgow, Scotland, is an interesting story itself. The varied collection was acquired over many years by Sir William Burrell, a wealthy Glasgow shipping magnate, and his wife Constance, who gifted it to the city of Glasgow in 1944. Due to a mix of location difficulties (Burrell had insisted it must be located close but not too close to central Glasgow) and budgetary issues, construction of the site didn’t begin until 1978. It wasn’t until 1983 that the museum in Pollock Country Park, just three miles from Glasgow city centre, finally opened to the public. In 2016, with the building showing the effects of time, a decision was made to renovate so that general repairs could take place, but also to make it more sustainable and to increase gallery space.

The £68 million (€79m) project was opened by King Charles III on his first official engagement as King, following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, who had opened the original building in 1983. The museum contains more than 9,000 objects, including medieval stained glass, tapestries and oak furniture, medieval weapons and armour, Islamic art, artefacts from ancient Egypt and China, and paintings by Degas and Cézanne, all collected by Burrell over many years.

Given the task of telling parts of the story by supplying, installing, and programming the AV element over two floors of the museum was D J Willrich (DJW), a system integrator specialising in visitor attractions, theme parks and museum projects. The AV consultant/system designer on the project was Douglas Bolton, with digital studio ISO Design providing multimedia content.

A year before winning the tender, DJW ran some tests for the client says Nicola Jagger, project manager for DJW. “We supplied and built a small videowall for a test, which they used to prove their original ideas to themselves and to help physically prove the concept across the greater museum, which was quite a challenge for them, but one they were really keen to push through.”

Most museums will say they want to attract an audience from 8-80 years old, but before the refurbishment that wasn’t the case here. “There was a broad audience on the museum’s doorstep, using the park, but they were not using the museum itself,” says Jagger. “There were whole areas of the museum before where visitors just didn’t go. Part of the concept of the redesigned layout, including the AV was to draw people through it, so there are a couple of central corridors where we have installed large videowalls down the corridor to pull people deeper into the museum.”

What did the museum want this technical storytelling to achieve in this whole process? The client had put a toe in the water of using AV to tell the story in another Glasgow museum project, and was now excited to really dive in says Jagger. “They very much wanted to convince everyone that AV was the way to go by using it intelligently through the museum, to achieve their technical ambitions, with DJW’s help. The aim was to take the visitors around and into the objects, to give them a much deeper understanding of them through AV.”

The new Burrell Collection now includes more than 90 digital displays offering interactive and immersive experiences for visitors of all ages. Alongside the refurbishment of the existing building was the addition of some new areas, including a new atrium to help with the flow of visitors. 

The first thing visitors see when they enter the atrium of the Burrell Collection is the 6m x 2.3m Leyard videowall, giving them a taste of what lies in different areas, as well as passing on visitor information. For events, the videowall can be used as a presentation screen, or can show video art, and music. The stairs to the lower ground floor double as a seating area for evening events. Bose beam-steerable speakers either side of the videowall provide full audio for the area, and the AV is controlled via a tablet.

Is the aim of the Burrell Collection to offer an education experience, or purely an entertainment offering? It’s a mix of both says Jagger, because the technology has been chosen to specifically spotlight the different aspects of the collection and to draw people into the collection and help them look at it in a different way. “It wasn’t strictly educational because a significant part is highlighting the sheer beauty of the objects.”

To do this, DJW installed 4.1m-high by 1.7m-wide videowalls showing plates in a case in front of the videowall, which allows visitors to view the original, but see close up detail on the big screen that they couldn’t see with the naked eye, or details normally out of sight i.e. the maker’s mark or signature on the bottom of the vase. Dotted around the Burrell are a variety of the subtle and tasteful ways that DJW has incorporated AV into the eclectic collection of paintings and artefacts. The first looks in detail at colour, and how most of the Roman sculptures were originally painted lots of different colours says Jagger.

“Because it’s something a lot of people don’t realise when they come to museums, they see the statues in stone, and think they’ve always been stone, but they’ve actually been painted and painted in really quite vibrant and strong colours.” To illustrate this DJW installed Panasonic projectors in the ceiling to ‘paint’ onto a sculpture to look at the effects of colour (before and after) and why you would choose different colours.

Another clever installation is a gallery featuring floral artworks, which has a projected cascade of flowers falling down the wall around the paintings, with the  paintings themselves carefully masked off using AV Stumpfl Pixera media servers. “We’ve used flowers to create emotion, which then brings the paintings to life,” says Jagger. Two motion sensor cameras fixed in the ceiling point downwards to track movement of visitors below, working alongside projectors to create an immersive wall. When you waft your hand the petals will move in accordance with the direction of your hand movement. Because it is projection mapped, the projection of the leaves will not appear on the paintings themselves, but fly around the paintings, or fall on top of each painting in a pile. This not only produces a more natural and lifelike effect, but it had a practical purpose too says Jagger. “DJW had to supply data to the software team to allow them to manipulate where the leaves would land, and we also had to ensure for conservation purposes that the light was never projected directly onto the paintings, by using masking.”

Another interesting technical use is centred around a giant  tapestry on the subject of falconry. Content was filmed and produced by ISO Design with actors in period costumes working with birds, matching the subject of the tapestries. This content is shown on two Panasonic projectors, installed one above the other to produce one tall and narrow vertical screen. Another room features an array of Islamic carpets, which blends with projected images to bring the animals features on the carpets to life “in a stylised but artistic way,” explains Jagger.

The final section of the Burrell to highlight, features yet another clever use of projection, this time in the open store space. Frosted glass panels provide a dual purpose, facts are projected onto the screen about the work of the open store initially, and then the glass becomes transparent to offer visitors a real life demonstration. Jagger explains how it works: “At one point in the show, DJW have programmed a relay to change, which energises the glass to then become see-through, allowing visitors to see into the actual stores, where the staff can be seen moving new objects around.”

Dotted around the museum are other areas which use technical storytelling , again with the intention of bring the art pieces to life. In the storytelling gallery, the imagery of Greek vases is used in animation, in a similar manner to the tattoos of the Maori character in the Disney film ‘Moana’, that were brought to life. In others you will see historic images and postcards of Glasgow brought to life by adding realistic sounds or smoke rising from the chimneys etc.

Much like the content, there were a variety of challenges that faced DJW in this project. For contractual reasons some of the AV was split between two contracts, with the client specifying and installing some touchscreens themselves. While this might be unusual for an AV project, it did provide a benefit for the integrator says Jagger. “It was quite handy because our client project manager was physically on-site allowing us to go to them to get decisions made quickly.”

A knock-on effect of this two-part contract, was that any AV equipment not under the DJW contract was installed onto Squint Opera’s CMS, meaning DJW had to make sure its show control could interface with that system. The biggest challenge was with the control rooms explains Jagger. “The area allocated for the control room for the corridor videowalls was just outside the limit of cabling, so we had to negotiate a new location that was closer and just inside the limit for cables.”

Who looks after the project’s AV technology now it’s up and running? Jagger explains “The museum hired an apprentice not long before we started, and we went through the whole process with him. We were able to train him all the way through and he now manages all the AV equipment, bolstered by a DJW support contract for when his knowledge becomes stretched, developing a great relationship with him and our client.”

If proof were needed that the renovation was a success, the Burrell Collection has recently hit one million visitors since it re-opened, and last year won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, which is the largest museum prize in the world. What has been achieved at the Burrell Collection is an example of looking at the content and designing AV perfectly around it. Everything is subtle but clever and works to enhance, not take away from, what was already there. The initial worries from the client, have been alleviated and the end result has pleased everyone explains Jagger. “Part of the concern shared by quite a few people in the museum, was that it was going to be turned into something flashy, but by opening time those same people were commenting, ‘this is incredible, we love it’.” 

Advantech ADAM-6060 control interface
AV Stumpfl Pixera One media server, Mini Pixera media players
Bose MSA12X loudspeakers, EX-1280C DSP, PM8250N amplifiers,
Brightsign XT244 media players
Datapath FX-4 controller
Ecler eGPA2-150 amplifiers
Extron DTP-T-DP-4K-230 transmitters, DTP-HDMI-4K-330 receivers
Fohnn AT05 loudspeakers
Icron Raven 3104 USB extenders
Intel Realsense cameras
Leyard Clarity Matrix G3 LX46X videowall tiles
Lightware WP-UMX-TPS-TX130 wall plate transmitter
Lindy HDMI 4K Audio De-embedder
Netgear GS108T and GS724Tv4 switches
Panasonic PT-RCQ10BEJ projectors
Sennheiser LSP 500 PRO PA system, EW 300 G4-865-S-GW microphones, EM 300-500 G4-AW+ receivers
SpeakerCraft AIM 8 Three and AIM 8 Wide One loudspeakers
Unicol projector mounts
Yamaha VXL1B-24 line array loudspeakers

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