Recurring themes

This year’s InAVation Awards was the first time one installation company scooped two project gongs. Chris Fitzsimmons spoke to D.J.Willrich’s managing director David Willrich to try and learn the secrets to his success.

When I caught up with David via telephone he was in Abu Dhabi, halfway through a trip around the Middle East. He’d started out in Bahrain, where D.J.Willrich (DJW) is putting the finishing touches to an interactive installation at Bahrain Monument. The company is also working on projects in neighbouring emirate Sharjah, whilst bidding for a part of the museum work expected to come along in Abu Dhabi. It was also working on a theme park in Dubai, but as with many other projects in the country, that is currently on ice.
Looking around for new business in the region, David notes that much of the money that was flooding into Dubai from Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia is now staying at home. Those countries are now investing in their own projects. However, the Middle East isn’t a new departure for the company. “Sharjah has actually been creating museums since the early nineties, which is what brought us out here in the first place,” says David.
“The ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, saw the Evolution of Wales gallery that we installed in‘92-93 in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and wanted to know where he could get one.
“Being a savvy individual, he contracted the National Museum of Wales to contract the team who’d built their exhibition to make one for him.It was an excellent result; it’s still there and still receiving visitors having been opened in 1994.
“Since then we’ve been involved in countless museums in Sharjah.”
However some time before that, David himself started his working life at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, England. He began working fulltime in 1977 for his father once he left college.
“My father’s words to me were: if you’re as clever as you think you are, start repairing all this audio visual stuff, and keep it working for me. So I did. My responsibility was for just about every piece of technology the museum had at the time. Anything with a plug on it was my remit.
“In 1985 we installed a dark ride called Wheels into the museum, which is still running. Dad was project manager and between us we looked around the world for the best solution. I got to the mid eighties thinking, I want to do more projects like this, it’s fun.
“The designer that was working on the project asked if I was interested in doing something on the side for him as a consultant. At the same time, Beaulieu was hosting a number of conferences and people started to note that when they came to the museum the AV was working. At the time that was an achievement given the 120 electromechanical projectors I had to look after.
“Other museums began asking if I could come and do work for them in my spare time or at weekends.”
However,there comes a point where moon lighting gets in the way of the day job, so David approached his employers at the museum with the idea of him going it alone. He continued to work out of their premises, and employed an additional pair of hands to make sure things were covered at home before heading out into the world.
“Once I was out and about in the independent museum world, because I was pretty well known amongst the people who used to come to Beaulieu, getting business and growing the company in the early years was pretty easy.
“That level of business started to disappear as soon as video came along.I’ve found that as technology has advanced, the bread and butter work that I built the company on has all but vanished. Museums can do it for themselves.
“Our added value now had to come from elsewhere. The display systems themselves of course need installing correctly, but a museum might be able to do that itself. However I think it’s the automation sidewhere we can really shine. It’s all very well to have content and displays but we can make it loop every 15 minutes or switch on when someone walks into the room etc. Then there’s the scale issue. It might be just a one off AV theatre for a local authority, but if you’ve got thirty or so of these on the same site then you’re into networking, and multi-channel amplifiers and multi-channel DVAs.
“That’s well outside the capabilities of most museums.”
David also believes that D.J.Willrich’s years of experience also puts them ahead of many other companies seeking to work in the museum market.
“You can’t take them [museum customers] literally. They say things like:‘I want a microphone’, or: ‘I want a projector’. You have to approach the questions differently and extract from them what they want to achieve. The way I get them to explain it is to ask: ‘When I walk into this gallery, what am I going to experience?’ Just tell me what you want the visitor to experience, we’ll work out what you need to do, and then we’ll look at the budget.
“There’s a huge expectation management element to it. I think that other integrators sometimes look at museums in recessionary times as an opportunity and just don’t realise how much hand holding they’ll need to do. If the client comes up with unrealistic suggestions, which they often do, you have to be almost bold enough to talk yourself out of a job and say: no, that’s a bad idea, I don’t think it’s going to work. Have you got the media, or the content for this fantastic HD system?
“You find yourself asking questions about what resources they’ve got and really working with them to manage their expectations so that theyaren’t disappointed with the outcome.”
Of course in most cases the integrator and the museum are not the only parties involved, especially in the larger projects. This brings us conveniently to the subject of DJW’s InAVation Award winning RingWerk installation at the Nürburgring in Germany.
“With a big project like the Nürburgring, the first thing you need is the design company, who are the people that we have to appeal to and impress. They will come up with even more ideas than a curator and as they have more experience with technology they are more clued up on its capabilities.
“Even so they are still prone to entering a dream world of their own and coming up with unrealistic and unachievable ideas. One of the most irritating things about free-hand design sketches and 3D modelling is that everything can float. It doesn’t need any power or supports! If we can get in early at the concept stage we can avoid all of that.”
So what does the award mean for David and his team?
“I think what was so nice about the InAVation award is that it’s a European Award, not just a UK award and covers a broader range. It sets us up with our international peers. It’s nice for us to be able to say: we’ve got some award winning projects. In the past we’ve shied away from awards, because we’ve seen the stuff we’d be up against. I think this time around we’ve been fortunate to have some genuinely landmark and well funded projects.”
It sounds as if David and his team have been “lucky” again this year with more exciting projects in the pipeline. However, when that kind of luck becomes too habitual you have to question whether it’s luck, or just talent.

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