Museums - What do curators want from the AV community?

Museums and visitor attractions are becoming ever more popular with people of all ages and are one of the largest mass-audience entertainment facilities in the world. Steve Montgomery finds out what curators are looking for when it comes to multimedia support.

According to the American Alliance of Museums: “There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums which exceeds the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined.”  In the UK, more than 100 million visits are made annually to museums. 

Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, reflects on the changing philosophy within the museum sector that has enabled this growth in popularity and likely to continue to fuel its expansion: “Museums underwent a conscious change in their approach over a decade ago, from serving as institutions which collect, document, preserve, exhibit and interpret material for the public to ones that directly serve visitors, enabling them to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.  

“They have become institutions that collect, safeguard and make artifacts accessible which they hold in trust for society. The role of the museum has become one of bringing sections of the community who have never been traditional museum users into the mainstream, helping them to understand where they are, what they do, their contribution to society and making them feel better about themselves.”

Attendance figures are rising and have been for several years, as museums keep pace with, and compete successfully against alternative attractions, such as theme parks and cinemas.  

A large part of the rise in popularity can be attributed to the foresighted adoption of technology, and in particular audiovisual displays, to attract and maintain the interest of visitors.  

Clearly the participants on both sides of the industry are doing something well: museums are selecting the right equipment and methods of communication, suppliers are responding with suitable systems and together the appeal to the visiting public is growing.  

Mark Taylor: “The classic way of showing an exhibit with a printed label no longer works.  In the digital age, visitors expect to be ‘users’ and to interact with the museum, seeking out and educating themselves on what they find interesting,” however he notes a point of caution: “We must avoid adopting digital techniques just for the sake of it; not to attempt to outdo the amusement parks, rather we need to ways to enhance the visitor experiences.  

This may include an interactive session or a hands-on experience.  However, there is a balance as people, children in particular, appreciate and demand a better, more interactive experience.” 

A new word has been adopted to describe this process as Kevin Williams of consultants KWP explains: “The drive towards greater levels of visitor inclusion in the modern museum, gallery and visitor attraction has seen the marriage of the latest compelling entertainment content and technology combined into the educational medium to create what has been called ‘Edutainment’.  

Edutainment has entered the museum sector in three core areas: the first, ‘audience experiences’, includes the latest physical effects theatres. The second area is the ‘simulator experience’ offering a recreation of various activities.  Finally there is the incorporation of a ‘game narrative’ within the digital presentation into the exhibition space.”  

This effect is already well established and visible in several of the largest museums in London, in particular where the content lends itself to the concept and appeals to a younger audience.  

The content of some exhibitions often lends itself to multi-media presentation and theatrical production; none more so than the current ‘David David Bowie Is’ exhibition which features extensive video and audio material.  

Geoff Marsh, curator of this exhibition at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum worked with theatrical production specialist 59 Productions and explains the design approach:”This is the first time that a production company from the world of theatre and opera has been invited to lead the design of an exhibition at the V&A. 

“We have combined theatrical scene-setting and storytelling to create bespoke set pieces, object presentation, original animations and archival film and video installations to create an immersive visitor experience. 

“We wanted to embrace the theatrical nature of this exhibition and felt that was fundamental to bringing these objects and Bowie's music to life.  We needed a groundbreaking design to represent a groundbreaking artist, so the design references have come from Bowie's own performance.  Innovative set designs and video projection installations have resulted in a multi-media experience that genuinely brings the story alive.”

This is radically different from the traditional museum exhibition as Mark Grimmer, director of 59 Productions points out: “The average age of museum audiences is falling and these younger visitors respond well to more theatrical methods of communication than traditional museum exhibits.  

“In a media-rich, high-tech world they expect a similar level of experience as they have on their computers and phones and will interact automatically, almost instinctively.”  

Audiovisual technology is effectively used to convey the ‘story’ of exhibits: to portray them in context and show how they were used.  In addition to projection systems and soundtracks within the museum, tablet and smartphone applications are being adopted to provide extended commentary and visual images about them.  

The British Museum has developed an app to illustrate and support the ‘Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ exhibition. This includes video footage and interviews, high resolution images and explanations of the exhibits and interactive maps and timelines, allowing users to follow events and place everything in context. 

It is aimed at those who experience the exhibition first-hand as well as people around the world who are not able to visit; thereby extending the reach of the exhibition far beyond the walls of the museum.  

To reach out even further, two live transmissions were screened at over 1000 cinemas in 51 countries. These showings, entitled ‘Pompeii Live at the British Museum’ were aimed at general cinema audiences, and school groups.   

They combined live interviews with experts and tours of the exhibition with pre-recorded films showing the devastating consequences of the volcanic eruption and simulated experiences of inhabitants at the time.  

Neil MacGregor British Museum director explains: “This was a unique experience for audiences across the country to enjoy a special evening view of the exhibition; a personal tour guided by experts who explored the stories the objects tell us of Roman life 2000 years ago. We hope this will inspire people to travel to come and see the exhibition at the British Museum”.

These screenings have been enabled by the move to digital cinema technology around the world, as David Hancock, director, head of Film and Cinema, IHS Screen Digest points out:  â€œAlternative content in cinemas is beginning to take-off and we are starting to see what the digitisation of cinemas is really about. 

“As the UK moves to digital the public is becoming more aware of non-film programming in their local cinema. The range and creativity of this content is growing. In the UK, there were 121 events in cinemas in 2012, compared to 109 in 2011 and 44 in 2010. 

“The majority of these are Opera, Ballet and Classical Music events. The British Museum event on Pompeii and Herculaneum really does bring something new to the mix of alternative content programming in two ways, coming as it does from a museum and with two events aimed at adults and children respectively.”

Museums are, however, faced with the quandary of having to apportion limited financial resources between their prime responsibility of maintaining and exhibiting artifacts and investing in audiovisual and digital technology to attract and absorb a wider visitor base.

Mark Grimmer also observes other elements in play: “Some museums have a stock of basic equipment of varying levels of suitability and often lack in-house specialists to use it effectively.   

“Hiring expensive servers, display screens and projectors is often not a viable or cost-effective option, particularly for some of the specialist exhibitions that will go on tour to other museums and this presents a barrier to adoption”  

Coupling these factors with a conservative approach from many museums where it is often perceived that an audiovisual or interactive presentation may distract from the artifacts means that there is some level of caution in adopting these techniques, we are in the early days of this evolution.  

“There are no ‘quick fixes’,” points out Geoff Marsh. “Projects are slow to mature: often taking two years or more to plan and execute and with an inherent prejudice against audiovisual technology from some elements within the museum world, suppliers must invest their time and effort over the long term to build relationships, understand what museums are attempting to achieve before they can help them achieve their objectives.  This is expensive to them but essential if they wish to enter the market.”

Conversely it is not the largest national museums that are early adopters of audiovisual technology.  Smaller museums on limited budgets often have a greater desire and will invest a relatively larger proportion of their budget and respond more quickly.  

“We work with several smaller museums such as the National Football Museum in Manchester and the Titanic Belfast Museum that are very responsive to interactive and audiovisual technology,” says David Willrich of specialist museum installer DJWillrich.  

“However it is essential to work with them to understand what their objectives are in terms of presenting information and relative budgets to design solutions accordingly. It is not productive simply to offer technology for technology’s sake as this won’t appeal to visitors; it has to be integrated into the exhibits, the lighting and the surrounds to be effective.”

One of the ways that museums can extend their budgets is to offer sponsorship to companies that wish to be associated with or are active in related fields. Many of the specialist exhibitions have primary sponsors drawn from the large institutions: Goldman Sachs, Gucci, Ernst & Young etc.   

Specialist audio supplier Sennheiser has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition to promote their name through involvement in the exhibition. “We have not only brought equipment to this exhibition but also our audio expertise, offering visitors an immersive 3D audio experience,” said Paul Whiting, president of global sales at Sennheiser. 

“The exhibition is designed to be an audio experience, and visitors are able to immerse themselves in Bowie’s music, art, and style via Sennheiser’s guidePORT audio guide system. The system seamlessly integrates sound material into the tour and automatically provides music and narrative when visitors approach the exhibits.”

There is considerable scope for future growth and potential for AV suppliers and system integrators to enter the museum market at different levels.  Another area that has barely been addressed as yet is that of content and app design for visitors’ own tablets and smartphones that are taken to the exhibition itself. 

Mark Grimmer has identified this as a future area of activity: “There is interest from the museums and significant potential for applications within the museum using the visitors’ own devices; in audio guides, QR code readers, visitor photo display and augmented reality demonstrations and we have had several discussions with museums about these.  

One of the issues yet to be resolved is that of copyright, particularly in artistic events, but this will be overcome and we anticipate growth in this area.”

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