Immersive experience: How Tinker imagineers transformed a WWII museum

The Airborne Experience in the Airborne Museum at Hartenstein has been reimagined to creatively immerse visitors in the Battle of Arnhem and take them on a coherent journey through harrowing events. Anna Mitchell reports.

The Airborne Museum remembers a turning point of the Second World War within Hartenstein, a mansion that played a key role in the Battle of Arnhem. The grand building of Hartenstein was a stately home and hotel before it was requisitioned as the headquarters of the British 1st Airborne Division and later opened as a museum to commemorate the nine-day battle.  

In 2009 major renovations at the museum included the excavation of an underground area, larger than the footprint of the building itself, to house the Airborne Experience: a series of dioramas that brought the battle to life. Such an ambitious extension of an historic building as well as a new approach to remembering a sobering event was not without its risks when it came to public perception. 

But ten years later the exhibition was a resounding success and ready for a major upgrade. Tinker imagineers, designer of the original exhibition, returned to modernise and upgrade the basement in a complete overhaul of the immersive experience. Show control, AV hardware and lighting design and equipment installation was handled by an integrator formerly known as Rapenburg Plaza, and now part of Hypsos.
People in the back of the plane
In the first space visitors wait to board a plane. An LCD coupled with loudspeakers at the front of the room plays a video loop that provides a two-minute countdown to boarding and a montage of real news footage of soldiers boarding gliders. Content is played from a local BrightSign player.

“There’s no heavy media server behind the exhibition, all displays use local BrightSign players,” explains experience designer Gijs Leijdekkers. “A Pharos Lighting Controller is the master; triggering the audio and videos and playing the lighting cues at the right time. We put the use of this lighting controller to the max, by wanting to depict frame-accurate machine-gun fire lighting cues totally synchronised to the soundscape.”

Pilot in cockpitA sliding door opens for visitors to board a plane that featured in the original exhibition. It has now been updated using video, lighting and sound effects to offer a more realistic and immersive experience. The view out of the cockpit is created with a BenQ projector and rear-projection foil, while LG 32-in LCDs deliver content to the side windows. 

Leijdekkers says: “We used Cinema4D and Adobe After Effects to make the [projected] content and when we were on location we used After Effects with the live output to adjust before rendering the file. The approach means the projectors have to be firmly mounted because if they move it’s very difficult to correct the image.”

Synchronised content takes visitors from a British airfield, over the North Sea and into the Netherlands. On landing, four Buttkicker LFE (low frequency effects) units installed below the four benches, come into action to give visitors a bumpy arrival, while a five-channel soundscape adds an extra level of immersion. 

Visitors disembark into a chaotic battlefield scene. 

All content is synchronised, encompasses a complex ±40 channel soundscape and plays on a 2 minute 15 second loop. This enables certain elements, such as a fireball or planes flying overhead, to link though the entire exhibition. The areas weren’t acoustically isolated so it also meant very loud audio could be used to dramatic effect without sound leakage causing problems. Sound design was handled by the spatial sound design specialists of Walvisnest, with audio played off solid state multitrack audio players from Cymatic, and delivered from a mix of Crown and Audac amplifiers; and Kef, Apart, Audac and Behringer loudspeakers. 

After exiting the plane two BenQ projectors deliver content that depicts soldiers parachuting into the battlefield. “We deliberately made this content a little grittier and noisier,” says Leijdekkers. “We thought if we tried to make it realistic it would feel a bit cheap and artificial. It’s more like a suggestion of parachutes landing. A third projector is used to really subtle effect to simulate sunlight coming through trees and the shadows of planes flying over.” 
Town square
The first area employs 10 loudspeakers including an array of ceiling-speakers to create a sensation of planes passing above. Lighting and audio is used to subtly encourage visitors to move to the next area with the room slowly darkening and soldiers’ voices urging their comrades to press forward.

In the next area Leijdekkers aimed for a “cinematic experience”. The walls are painted black and two Optoma projectors and one BenQ projector are used to display archive footage to depict optimistic soldiers moving on to Arnhem. The optimism quickly gives way to a much darker mood, reflected in the soundscape and images depicting the start of a fierce battle. 

“These Optoma mini projectors are very small projectors and you would not normally use them to display images of the size they are here,” explains Leijdekkers. “But this is a very darkened area and we pair the images with synchronous lighting effects. We didn’t need powerful projectors; we did test with more powerful projectors, but when tuning light- and projection-levels we ended up wanting such a dimmed experience that only these small projectors ended up making sense. Moreover these mini-projectors were very easy to suspend from above, and are almost invisible to the audience.”

Visitors then encounter the most ambitious set design of the exhibition: an ArnhemCrosses town square. Large projections depict footage from war journalists as well as pieces from Theirs Is the Glory, a film that recreated the battle and was shot inside the real ruins in 1946, just two years after the event and included soldiers who were there. “The museum allowed us to incorporate this as they said it’s practically archive footage,” says Leijdekkers. 

Using projection, the team was able to extend the physical space into the carefully designed ‘virtual’ projected images. By synchronising projected explosions with lighting cues and smoke machines, visitors experience a battlefield as they normally only do in films and videogames.

In other areas small audio players and Pepperl+Fuchs sensors are used so when you are near specific spots, you’ll hear a German soldier screaming for people to move on, a bomb going off or machine gun fire and shattering glass over six separate speakers, resulting in a dauntingly realistic sensation. 

Audio is also used to dramatic effect within one of the houses that visitors are routed through. Speakers in the ceiling and floor give the illusion of soldiers walking above and a family hiding in the basement below. 

The journey takes visitors back to Hartenstein, acting as headquarters in wartime. A depiction of the villa is used as a large projection surface so soldiers are seen at windows and walking around within the very building that is above the exhibition. 

Leijdekkers says the scene depicting the ‘perimeter’, the area surrounding the museum building that was protected for many days by brave soldiers, is the most harrowing. The red wash of evening sun reveals soldiers’ bodies while a projection of very delicate archive film footage shows dejected soldiers desperately firing their cannons. 

The final scene depicts the retreat. Projection on the walls and floors was again used to subtly enhance the feeling of immersion with effects such as water ripples and the horizon. 

Visitors leave the exhibition through an area where they can reflect on what they just experienced when listening to an emotional soundscape of eyewitness anecdotes. Information on the walls offers insight into facts and statistics on the battle, while crosses overhead symbolise the fallen soldiers.

There is one final space elsewhere in the museum where four BenQ LH890UST projectors, each fed by a Brightsign HD1024 player, fire onto three walls to deliver an immersive media show providing an overview of the entire battle. The video content suggests a printed large map hanging from the walls to create stylized tactile sensation. Miniatures of the city of Arnhem and of the museum villa are used for special projection-mapping effects such as miniature explosions. Audio is delivered through two Genelec 4020CCM loudspeakers and synchronised with the Podcatcher audioguide. 

Down the rabbit hole
The Airborne Experience reopened alongside a temporary exhibition for children called Watership Down that was also designed by Tinker. The exhibition was created to encourage children aged from eight to thirteen to consider concepts like freedom and democracy and used Richard Adams’s book Watership Down as a basis.

Tessa Lavrijsen, creative consultant and designer, headed up Tinker’s design team. “We wanted to make this a very intense and interactive experience where the children had to work together,” she explains. 
Carrot pile
The team was able to draw on a lot of the content created for the BBC series of Watership Down. The book is represented with pages flying down a corridor that links the four different rooms, or burrows. 

In the first room, elements of light punctuate an otherwise very dark exhibition while speakers (localised to each area) play ominous audio tracks of thunder and running feet. In this threatening atmosphere of a maze kids look for clues to escape. 

In the second room a projector is used to depict rabbit silhouettes that vanish one by one, while a nursery rhyme plays. The song ends with a gun shot. The content quickly becomes more uncomfortable and it starts to become clear that the room is not a good place to be. Lavrijsen says the heat created by the projector played into their hands in the small space, making it hot and contributing to the uncomfortable atmosphere. 
Rabbit head
The exhibition is essentially an interactive game and children are fed clues about how to solve a problem and move through the spaces, working together to overcome riddles. Lighting and audio are used to reinforce correct decisions or indicate wrong turns, for example a giant book turns red in warning for enemies and green for friends. 

The budget for the space was limited and the use of technology restricted with a lot of the equipment repurposed from use in other areas of the museum. This put extra pressure on the narrative and creativity of the design but Lavrijsen thinks this can be a positive and relished the challenge. 

Both spaces were due to open right at the start of lockdown which was a huge blow to the teams that had worked long hours at the end of the build to meet the deadline. However, the good news is that both are finally open to visitors, who must now book in advance. A positive for both exhibitions is they are designed to take a limited number of people through a journey of discovery. Social distancing was therefore virtually built in even before the designers realised it was necessary. 

Photo credit: mike bink


Apart speakers
Audac DPA 154 amplifiers and speakers
Behringer speakers
Crown CT 8150 amplifiers
Cymatic Audio uTrack24 and LP16 solid state players
Genelec 4020CCM
Kef Ci200QSB subs, Ventura 6 speakers, CI50 speakers

Pepperl+Fuchs PIR20/31 PIR sensors
Pharos Lighting controller TPS + EXT

Buttkicker low frequency effects generators
Fireware Rookmachine smoke machines

ADJ MOD QW100 LED par cans, Encore Profile 1000 colour LED ellipsoidal, DJ Saber pinspot
Botex 220v 1Ch dimmers

BenQ LH890UST, LU951ST and LU951 projectors
Brightsign HD1024, LS424 and HD224 players
LG 32L screens
Optoma ML750ST projectors