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Doing Business in Museum AV

Some of the most innovative work in pro AV is happening at the nation's museums. And it's not just the exhibitions.


At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., integrators installed touch-panel displays for the museum's Monet exhibition in order to better engage visitors—young and old.

If any sector should have ground to a halt during the worst recession in about 70 years, it should have been museums. However, as dependent as they are on donations and tourism—both casualties of an economic downturn—28 percent of museums are sticking with expansion plans, according to the most recent Association of Art Museum Directors survey. And two-thirds say that endowment income increased or remained the same in 2010, which helps explain why only 4 percent of museums are deferring expansion.

If those stats are enough to make you consider expanding into the museum market, be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting for projects to come to fruition—as in years or even decades.

"The museum market is not a box-sale market," says Sue Lepp, senior vice president at Design and Production (D&P), a Lorton, Va.–based integrator whose recent projects include the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum in Atlanta. "It used to be that five years was the minimum development time for a museum project."

Lepp says that she's seen master plans that are 20 years old because that's how long it sometimes takes to raise enough funding to start construction. So for integrators chasing the museum opportunity, success—make that survival—is as much about managing cash flow as it is about coming up with stellar designs.

"Jobs tend to run for years," says Bob Haroutunian, principal at Amelia Island, Fla.–based PPI Consulting. "I'm working on museums right now that don't open until 2016, 2018. So the business model is different."

AV pros who can live with those terms often find some pleasant surprises, such as how willing to spend big bucks museums tend to be. For example, when the directors of the Mint Museum of Art were building a new facility in downtown Charlotte, N.C., they knew that they had to compete with several other nearby museums—including the NASCAR Hall of Fame—for a finite pool of tourist dollars (see "Install Snapshot: Competing for Visitors," next page). That strategy juiced the signage budget.

"They knew they didn't want static boards," says Bruce Banbury, president of Charlotte-based Video Systems of the Carolinas, which worked on the project. "They didn't want rear-lit translucent screens for upcoming events. They wanted something with video that looked techy."

That something was a 70-inch NEC Display Solutions LCD, which had just hit the market. "When these first came out, they were $11,300," Banbury says. "They just ponied right up and said, 'What's the biggest thing we can put in the lobby for upcoming events?' "

"It was fun because it wasn't driven by budget as much as it was, 'What's the latest, greatest thing we can put in here?' " Banbury explains. "They were willing to spend the money to compete."


A growing number of museums are adding or upgrading facilities that show documentaries and other video content, including Imax and 3D versions. "With movie theaters transitioning from analog film to digital projection, and a growing mass of content that's available only in digital formats, museum organizers realize the need to update to digital projection," says Dave Duncan, Texas Instruments DLP Cinema manager.

And for many, interactivity is the name of the game, meaning technology that blends AV and IT to engage visitors. And it's"interactivity to the extent that it doesn't increase their staffing for maintenance is big in larger facilities that are seeing millions of visitors a year," Lepp says. "Those that have strong IT groups embrace technology more readily and those that don't are combining their IT and AV groups in order to support the technical components of the systems. Generally, museums are seeking higher-tech interactivity, especially touch tables and larger-screen, computer-based interactives. They are well aware that they have to engage youth in a compelling manner to compete. And the museums that are operating for profit put an even higher value on the high-tech, big-impact experience to draw more people in the door."

In fact, Lepp says, interactivity is often so important to museums that the AV systems that support it are usually considered mission-critical. "Because interactivity … is so powerful, we have not seen those budgets trimmed as quickly as physical budgets," she says. D&P is currently working on a music museum that is facing budget challenges, but the AV systems and supporting software programs are considered the last resort for budget cuts. And a year ago, the company finished work on the Kentucky Derby Museum, which ultimately opted for a higher-end Planar Clarity Matrix videowall because of its impact and low-maintenance features.

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