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Audio Technology Transforms Museums

Jun 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

Integrating sound into modern displays calls for innovative solutions.


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In many museums across the country, sound plays an important role. Exhibits increasingly incorporate sound and video, and making sure that sound doesn’t spill out from one exhibit to another is an important concern for systems integrators when designing an installation.

In many museums across the country, sound plays an important role. Exhibits increasingly incorporate sound and video, and making sure that sound doesn't spill out from one exhibit to another is an important concern for systems integrators when designing an installation.

The word "museum" still tends to conjure up images of dusty books and statues connected by the occasional spider web. The technology and design dedicated to museums, however, has transformed this growing sector, particularly when it comes to audio, which is being used to create immersive environments for especially intense museum scenarios. One prime example: the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., where attendees step into an actual CH-46 Chinook helicopter transport. The exhibit simulates a flight into a hot landing zone during the 1967 Battle of Hill 881 in Vietnam, and it includes sounds of incoming flak and small-arms fire and intercom chatter between pilots and crew chiefs.

Music is also driving this new focus on audio to complete the museum experience. There are close to two dozen museum facilities focused on national or regional music, including the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit; the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, Ala.; Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, La.; Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tenn.; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.; and of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

However, audio is also the most challenging of the museum integration crafts, as a few case studies reveal. Fortunately, industry professionals these days are crafting innovative solutions to these challenges.

Focused Sound in Philly

At the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, Andrew Kidd, a Burlington, N.J.-based technology consultant with Electrosonic—one of a handful of companies that specialize in museum-technology integration—faced a design for the facility that would make manifest the mechanics of the U.S. Constitution inside what is essentially a glass doughnut. Glass walls run in a circle around the perimeter of the building, and a smaller circle of glass encloses a theater in the hole of the doughnut. The glass walls—which have some of the highest reflective properties of any surface—weren't fixed parallel to each other, but the potential for reflections that could distort sound was significant. At the same time, the interior architectural design called for wide-open spaces with few walls that could act as sound barriers or insulators. The few walls that do exist are often integral parts of the exhibits, which further limits their usefulness as sound controllers.

Kidd says his team looked for low-hanging fruit first—stuffing sound-deadening material around the backs and sides of video soffits. They were also able to work some carpets in to help minimize reflections off the hard terrazzo floors. Larger issues, however, needed a combination of technology and technique to resolve them.

"Seventy percent of the vertical surfaces in the museum are glass, and the exhibits are placed throughout the open floor plan. The challenge was to give each exhibit space its own audio environment that had sufficient volume to allow it to be heard and understood, but not so loud as to distract a visitor at an adjacent exhibit," Kidd says.

The technology solution involved several of Dakota Audio's focused-beam audio systems, the 36"x36" FA 501 array or the smaller 24"x24" MA-4. Both are field-adjustable for mounting height and pattern width. There are two push buttons and two rows of LEDs on the top side of the array. One button adjusts the mounting height above the floor in 1ft. increments from 8ft. to 14ft. The other button controls the pattern width in seven steps from a tight spot to a circle 10ft. in diameter. But as focused and directional as the audio beam is, it still needs to be precisely positioned to make maximum use of the floor space.

At a display that involves leaning forward toward a desk, a pair of FA 501 steerable arrays were placed in the floor, aimed up, and angled toward the space where a person would stand—about a 4ft. to 6ft. throw.

"It's not a stereo audio program, but you need to support the sound on either side of the listener to keep the balance and to make the experience immersive," Kidd says. "With the right angle on the array, you can walk away a couple of feet and not hear a thing."



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