• Type: Whitepaper
  • Date: February 2018

By Dan Daley, Special to AVIXA

Everglades MuseumMuseums are no longer repositories of the past — history frozen in time. There are more than 35,000 museums in the U.S. alone, the Washington Post reported — more than the number of Starbucks and MacDonald’s locations combined.  Estimates suggest that about 100 new museums and cultural centers open each day globally. This is now a crowded and competitive market, and museums are looking to audiovisual solutions to achieve the differentiation and engagement that will drive admissions and memberships.

Maris Ensing, Chief Technology Officer of Mad Systems, an AV systems designer and integrator whose portfolio includes the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and the Discovery Cube in Santa Ana, Calif., says museum directors have been utilizing AV to achieve specific goals that directly and indirectly improve their bottom lines. One trend has been to create AV-based exhibits that can be experienced as a group, such as the Everglades airboat installation at the Museum of Discovery and Science, which allows a dozen or so visitors to board an actual airboat installed atop an aircraft simulator-type platform that, in conjunction with synchronized video projection and immersive audio, takes them on a “ride” through Florida’s famous swamp.

“We’ve gone from lectures to experiences in museums,” says Ensing, adroitly condensing the history of museum visitation over the last century into a single sentence. But, he continues, the headphones and interactive touchscreens that now comprise much of museum technology — and were intended to personalize visits — have unintentionally made them isolated experiences. Now, museums are seeking to create collective encounters that families and other groups can enjoy together. Such a change can help turn occasional visitors into regular members.

Stimulating the Subconscious

In-house theaters and their audio and video systems remain the core collective experience for museums; places to introduce visitors to exhibits and provide context when artifacts aren’t available, says David Munns, Director of Web and Digital Media at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, also home to the state's largest IMAX theater. For instance, he notes, it would be impossible to rely on physical items to illustrate the 15,000 years leading up to Texas’s declaration of independence in 1836 without animations and video. Projections on glass around the remains of a 17th century French shipwreck, now a centerpiece of the museum, allow multiple visitors to understand its significance.

Munns says audio has taken on added importance in the museum’s AV strategies. “We’ve found that people’s subconscious memories are stimulated by sound,” he says, which can include anything from effects to background music. For some exhibit installations, sound is crucial, such as for the Stevie Ray Vaughan display that ran there last year. Visitors could choose and hear how the individual “stomp-box” processors Vaughn used on stage during shows changed his guitar sounds. “We’ve found that visitors are better able to recall and describe exhibits in post-visit surveys when a lot of sound is involved,” he says. “It’s evidence of deeper engagement, and that translates to revenue down the line. In that sense, AV is definitely a problem-solver for museums. It fills in a gap for what we can accomplish as curatorial professionals.”


The experience at the Texas venue underscores how museums are becoming more aware of a phenomenon that late-night television commercial producers figured out some time ago. “Salience” refers to an effect recognized by educators and linguistic scientists as correlating brighter and louder phenomena with higher rates of attention and retention. Museum theaters are increasingly opting for cinema-grade sound systems and ever-brighter projectors, as manufacturers like Christie and Barco reach and surpass the 30,000-lumens mark, with 4K and now 8K resolution.

The newly opened Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami wanted not only more content for its full-dome planetarium and visualization theater, but also brighter content, installing multiple Christie 30,000-lumens projectors for its new full-dome planetarium, along with a large JBL CSX F35 sound system. George Barnett, project manager at Sky-Skan, which designed the planetarium for the museum, says that contrast is as important as brightness in that type of theater, but that both of those qualities, along with the high-powered 12-channel audio system installed in the planetarium, can combine to make a venue especially memorable.

“It makes for a lasting experience,” says Barnett, who is working on an even brighter theater for the Edmonton Science Center. “Obviously, the content also has a lot to do with it, but brightness and loudness can make quite an impression when done well.”

Brighter, Louder, the Future

Museums are facing uncertain times, particularly as changes in tax laws affect the charitable contributions that most depend on. Some, like the 470,000-square-foot Newseum in Washington, D.C., are already teetering financially. Maris Ensing suggests that museums will have to look at more frequent updates to the content and technology platforms of their exhibits. That can be costly, he acknowledges, but he also points out that in his experience museums don’t usually demand cost-benefit analyses of their AV, something that could better reveal its importance to their financials.

“They may not see the direct connection between the AV and an increase in admissions or membership,” he says, “though they understand it exists.”

The reality is that, in a media-saturated culture, loudspeakers and projectors have become front-line tools in the competitive landscape of museums. Brian Edwards, founder of Edwards Technologies, which has designed AV systems for theaters in museum venues including the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calig., and the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga., says that brighter, louder experiences are becoming more ubiquitous across all verticals using AV, and that museums need to keep up, in order to remain competitive not only within their own category, but also with the myriad other attractions for consumers’ attention and dollars.

“It would be good if museums become aware of how these techniques impact visitors’ experiences and apply across the whole museum experience, from parking lot to [gift shop],” he said, speaking from the floor of the ISE show in Amsterdam in February, where museum technology tours were on the agenda. “And how AV directly impacts their bottom lines.”