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Multipurpose Museum

Jun 1, 2012 4:01 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart

How installed AV systems support event revenue

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In the Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, guests are dressed in smart business attire mingle, sipping cocktails and snacking from a good quality buffet. You overhear people saying to each other, “You know, I always meant to come here. … I had no idea this was such a nice museum. … Did you see the movie?” Occasionally someone rejoins their colleagues and apologizes for wandering off, distracted by the minutiae of Manhattan’s past. Directly across from the bar, a few guests try out the large interactive exhibit—with big metal handles they aim each of five rotating touchscreens at a wall of art and artifacts, zooming in on various pieces to view detailed information. Other visitors congregate throughout the hall on benches or in corners, deep in conversation.

We’re in New York’s oldest museum, on the upper west side; Central Park is directly across the street. You couldn’t pay an interior designer for the decor—priceless artifacts of New York history, displayed with a blend of sleek high tech elegance and 19th century architecture. The museum’s three-year, $70 million renovation—by Platt Byard Dovell White Architects and Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership—transformed a warren of small, bookish dens of antiquity into an open, modern space, a welcoming entry to the four-story building that houses some of New York’s most precious memories. Since it reopened last November, visitors experience multimedia displays from filmmaker Donna Lawrence and design firms Unified Field in New York and Small Design Firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attend what is already a sizeable roster of special events; it’s all supported with a building-wide AV system designed and installed by Electrosonic.

In the process of the renovation, the New-York Historical Society Museum has not just become a 21st century museum but also a competitive events venue. The director of special events, Alex Maresca, came from the American Museum of Natural History event department last fall. Jason Licht, AV technical director, joined about a year ago with a background in multipurpose venue; he supports the AV systems, which are integral to the event offering.

Part of what makes the New-York Historical Society Museum such an attractive event venue is the variety of spaces and the opportunity to plan events that move among one or more of these spaces. Distributed audio and portable AV contribute to this flexibility, allowing organizations to host a presentation in the theater and then adjourn to the largest hall for a reception—where overflow crowds could hear and see the theater presentation remotely.

The environment lends itself to events from small boardroom-style business meetings to galas; the downstairs floor is the only children’s history museum and library in the city. A recent Bloomberg event demonstrated how the Smith Gallery could be transformed into a nightclub-style space. “The organizers reprogrammed the lighting and the audio and really turned it into an experience,” Licht points out. “Having a flexible installed systems is a draw.

“When I tell them they can change the video on the big entry columns, that makes an impression,” Maresca adds, especially for corporate people who may want to brand their event. “People want to know how they can personalize a space.” At the same time, she says, they want the benefit of the museum’s atmosphere and capabilities.

The upscale and dynamic tone of the venue is set immediately upon entering. Just before the admissions counter, guests encounter an interactive “living painting,” by Small Design Firm. A simulation of a painting from the museum’s collection—“Pulling Down the Statue of King George III” by Johannes A.S. Oertel—is displayed on a 2’x5’ landscape-oriented videowall made up of 10 narrow-mullion Planar Matrix 55in. monitors. At first glance the painting on the videowall appears to be just that: a static painting. But behind the monitors, Dell computers run an application that makes the picture come alive. Using a Microsoft Kinect camera, which tracks the movement of visitors, the computers begin to change the content of the painting—first subtly and then, as a crowd gathers, with increasing visibility. Initially, visitors hear the faint crackling and burning sound of the fire in the painting. When they approach the monitors, the dog in the foreground starts to move—or does it? As more visitors gather in front of the videowall, and the longer they remain, the painting grows livelier, the action more obvious. Soon the Revolutionary War colonists begin to tug on the ropes around the man-on-horseback statue in the mid-ground, and sounds of their struggle increase, as it crashes to the ground in a cloud of smoke and ash. With that the painting returns to its original state.

This initial exhibit exemplifies the atmosphere of the museum: It’s reverent and dynamic at once. A few steps further on, Skolnick’s design for the admissions desk incorporates digital signage cases of striking, semi-mirrored ad notam glass, built by DCL in Boston and providing visitors with information about the museum’s offerings and activities. With the help of AV consultant TAD, Electrosonic supplied C-nario signage software and players, which Unified Field used to craft the signage content.

Two things strike me as I tour the public spaces and behind-the-scenes with Electrosonic’s Project Manager, Ellen Simich. First: This is something that many museums could in theory do. There are a variety of galleries that lend themselves to a wide range of gatherings, and it seems a big improvement over an impersonal hotel. The other thing I notice is the AV systems have been tucked into cloakrooms, behind walls, used wirelessly—much of this to accommodate the challenges that go with a refit in an historical building. Some of the AV exhibits operate as standalone exhibits, yet a remarkable amount of the museum is networked across multiple floors.

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