The multimedia museum

The field of exhibit design is being pushed to ever-headier technological heights as museums seek to engage audiences accustomed to constant digital stimulation. Too often, however, high-density audiovisual content can lead to cacophonous clusters of overlapping sounds.

If technology is part of the problem, it’s also enabling better solutions. Designers are creating innovative tools and processes that allow project stakeholders — curators, exhibit designers, acousticians, and architects — to work together for better results.

Interactive real-time models, in particular, have begun to revolutionize the design process. “We’re pushing towards more immersive and interactive experiences, toward virtual reality,” said Denis Blount, an acoustic and audiovisual consultant in Arup’s Seattle office.

Human rights, loud and clear

The results can be seen — or, more accurately, heard — at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

Credit Flickr user Marco Correa

National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Much of the American civil rights movement was captured on tape as it happened, and the curators wanted to showcase the original audio and video. However, the design team (which included, among others, Rockwell Group as exhibit designer and Arup as acoustic consultant) was concerned that too much audio in a confined space might lead to a chaotic soundscape.

In the early stages of the project, Blount and his colleague Anne Guthrie auralized digital models of the proposed design in the SoundLab, an immersive environment located in Arup offices around the world. This enabled real-time simulations of the museum’s acoustics, architectural form, and lighting.

After the virtual exhibition space was ready, various project stakeholders visited the SoundLab to experience what visitors would see and hear as they moved through the museum. Based on their collective experience and feedback — too loud here, just right over there — the design team fine-tuned the acoustic environment in real time.

The SoundLab session allowed for a more informed, participatory, and democratic design process than would have been possible through a standard meeting, where critical information is conveyed through verbal descriptions, plans, renderings, or scale models. Multisensory, immersive experiences like the SoundLab provide a much more intuitive experience for all involved.

“Our collaborators are excited and intrigued to experience the design in ways they weren’t able to in the recent past,” says Blount, “and it gives more control back to exhibit designers and owners.”

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