[LEDtronics mentioned near the end of the article]
In 1954, The Franklin Institute Science Museum built a temporary six-month
exhibit, a two story tall, 35' diameter walk-through model of the human heart.
Fifty years later, my team and I were asked to renovate this extremely popular
exhibit, and for good measure, we had to come up with an additional 5,000 sq.
ft. of cutting edge, high-tech exhibits about the human heart and heart health.
No problem…and would you like fries with that?
After a 17-year career spanning theatre and theme park entertainment, I suddenly
found myself fully immersed in the field of museum exhibit design as director
of exhibits for the Institute. And for my rookie project, I was put in charge
of refreshing Philadelphia's best-loved icon, The Giant Heart. Fortunately,
I was given a first rate design team to help me see it through. Exhibit designer
Brad Bartley, developer Laura Selicaro, and technical designer Jeff Bechtel
worked together to create an outstanding exhibit that has been lauded by both
the critics and the public. But the road to success was not always a smooth
The first thing to understand about museum design is it's all about the content.
No, really, it's all about the content. And by content I don't mean a simple
story of star-crossed love in which a boy and girl are forced into ritual suicide
by the hatred of their warring families. Content, in museum speak, is a series
of educational goals that must be realized in three dimensions to allow guests
to interact with or observe phenomena in engaging, open-ended investigations
that lead to teachable moments (we really talk like that). The next thing to
realize about museum design is that each piece that is created, be it an interactive
exhibit, a media piece, or a recreation of an operating room, is really just
a show. And we've all created shows, right? But in this case, the team and I
had to create 32 of them.
So, once I had the epiphany to treat each exhibit device as a show, I was able
to break the process down into recognizable chunks. First, we needed the script,
which was the educational content. Topics ranged from medical imaging and the
benefits of exercise, to how the blood transport system works and how medical
science has progressed through the ages. Next was to figure out how to tell
each story — to engage the audience while still delivering the educational
content. For our topics, we used a magic machine that looks inside the human
body in four different ways, an opera that only works when you pedal an exercise
bike, an animated music video with a soundtrack by They Might Be Giants, and
finally, a time-traveling pinball machine that allows doctors from seven historical
eras to diagnose ailments. This process leads us to the really fun part: figuring
out how to make this stuff work.
One of my standing orders for this project was that all the technology we were
using had to be off-the-shelf, mature technology. Museums are notorious for
inventing their own technology to run their exhibits. This is historically a
cost-driven decision, but with the maturation of show technology (thanks in
large part to theme parks), museums are now in a position to be able to afford
top-notch lighting and display technology. With this in mind, tech designer
Jeff Bechtel and I went to work designing the systems that would bring these
experiences to life. Since this exhibit was going to be very media-intensive,
we decided early on that all playback devices would be solid state.
For our video-driven interactives, we chose the Alcorn-McBride slate of digital
video machines, coupled with their I/O 64 show control units. These units were
supplied and installed by Edwards Technologies, Inc. of El Segundo, CA. For
show control, we used the I/O 64, as our exhibits were completely choice-based
rather than time-based, so no show synchronization was required. In the case
of the time traveling pinball machine, the guests would first choose an ailment
via a button connected to the I/O 64. The controller would then put a pinball
in play, the guest would launch the pinball, and it would fall into one of seven
slots, each assigned to a doctor from a specific historic era (from ancient
Egypt to modern medicine). Once the video clip of the doctor played, the system
reset to the top, waiting for the next choice by a guest. To further complicate
things, to make the pinball conceit work, we placed the 37' LCD 16:9 ratio monitor
in a “portrait” configuration — when we shot the actors, we
had to turn the camera on its side. For that matter, we turned all the editing
monitors on their sides, as well.
Many of the exhibits were designed to be “real time” interactives,
meaning, simply, that what the guest does affects the environment on screen
in real time, just like a video game. Our biggest challenge was the Exercise
Opera, a four-station exhibit in which there are four pieces of exercise apparatus,
and each piece controls one of four characters on the screen (soprano, alto,
tenor, and bass). As long as you pedal your machine, that character sings to
you about the benefits of exercise. Once you stop, the character stops. If all
four bikes are stopped, the curtain drops, and the show ends. To accomplish
this, we had to create a single computer-based environment that could have one
of four characters triggered based on input from the bikes. Each of the bikes
is connected to a standard PLC through a proximity sensor placed on the flywheel
of the exercise bike. As the PLC receives the input from the sensor, it puts
out a steady stream of serial strings that the main show PC reads (one string
per bike). The PC then triggers the individual .wav sound files and flash animation
routines through Macromedia Director that is assigned to each bike.
Another of our more interesting PC-based exhibits is The Amazing Imaging Machine.
This is an application using an existing product called the I-Wall by Lynch
Exhibits. It is a self-contained touchscreen computer on a 5' slider that allows
you to scroll over a picture of a human body and look inside like a Star Trek
med scanner. And by touching buttons on screen, you can change the view from
MRI to X-ray to CAT scan to Gamma Bone Scan.
While Betchel and I were figuring out how to make these things work, Laura
Selicaro and Brad Bartley were busy figuring out the environment in which to
place them. We were aided by two seemingly disconnected discoveries. First,
when we demolished the room to place the new exhibit, we discovered a wealth
of original neo-classical ornamentation on the walls. Second, we found a book
in the museum library about the 1939 World's Fair (aka “The World of Tomorrow”).
We then combined the two to create our own idealized version of a World's Fair
pavilion, bridging the original architecture of the room (built in 1933) with
the streamlined look of the 1939 fair. This look was reflected in everything
from the bases holding the interactive exhibits, to the theatre for the Exercise
One of our biggest challenges was the 50-year-old Giant Heart itself. It had
been decades since it had been renovated, so we spent a lot of time trying to
update the experience. Our first job was to get a full scenic renovation courtesy
of sculptor Dave Barnes and scenic artist Paul Barker. The heart was originally
plaster and had been fiber-glassed sometime in the 70s. We took this opportunity
to repair the existing fiberglass and add some new internal sculptures like
heart valves and lung alveoli.
Next, we redid the lighting system, which consisted of a handful of old incandescent
fixtures and a fading fiber optic system. We replaced everything with LEDtronics
super bright MR-16 LED lamps. As it turns out, museums have a tendency not to
replace burned out lamps, so we opted to put in the longest lasting lamps we
could get. The final piece was a new sound and video system to provide the classic
“lub-dub” sound guests expect from a giant heart. But to bring the
experience into the 21st century, we added a section in the lungs where we project
blood cells on the floors and walls of the pathway. As you walk along, the cells
go from blue (non-oxygenated) to red (oxygenated). This effect was accomplished
by three Mitsubishi DLP projectors bouncing off of front surface mirrors through
the ceiling of the pathway. The projectors are playing a continuous 60-second
CG animated loop off of an Alcorn McBride DVM4. For the color transformation,
we simply used red and blue gel over the projection ports so all we had to do
was feed all three projectors the same animation loop. But as far as the guests
are concerned, the color changes.
So, there you have it: proof that a theatrical designer can find happiness
in the museum field. And as I move forward in this new career, I know that I
can always fall back on my years of theatrical training because, honestly, everybody
loves show business.
Links to LEDtronics' LED MR16 bulbs: 42-LED
Link to LEDtronics' LED MR11: 30-LED