Some may still think of museums as themselves dusty relics of an all but forgotten age, but in fact these institutions have been going from strength to strength - and at least part of the credit must go to the modern interactive displays and technologies that can help bring the past to life for thousands.
Jonathan Cooper (pictured, right), business development consultant for museums and leisure at NEC Display Solutions, says it is specifically targeting the market, which represents a promising opportunity with its own needs and restrictions.
Although there is a backdrop of public sector cuts to consider, there is also a continuing need to refresh or replace legacy technology at many museums and galleries. And if you can come up with a solution for them that enables them to cut costs as well as fulfil their remit, they will very likely be prepared to invest.
"A lot have legacy equipment and software that has been running for maybe 10 or more than 10 years, exceeding its useful life. It has to be replaced to keep certain elements going," Cooper confirms.
"That's a requirement at quite a few of the museums up and down the country. And there is also a requirement to step up the interactivity."
Many still have those ageing push-button displays but are looking to move to increased use of applications hosted on mobile devices such as iPads. Other opportunities can exist around ultra-short-throw projectors, which have also proven popular in many exhibitions.
It can then be a question of deploying the right hardware and infrastructure to support them, perhaps linking it all to a customer website.
"The other thing that's coming out is 4K content, if very high resolution is required. For example, the new British Museum viking exhibition uses 4K content," Cooper says.
Sometimes newer kit may in fact offer the reduced cost they seek - such as replacing lamp-based projection with LED technology.
"They can be a bit over having to pay £300 for lamps, and once they've moved from that, you can have projection in a portrait orientation - instead of using lots of flat panels all the time," Cooper says. "There needs to be a ‘wow' factor as well - and that can be a challenge, given all the technology we now have in the home."
Channel suppliers are and will continue to be important in this market, he notes. Although there are specialist consultancies, smaller local players
can sometimes offer the support over the longer term a museum might require, as well as initial services and installation.
A canny provider may do well to pay attention to upcoming anniversaries - such as this year's World War I commemorations, as there may be projects with which to get involved. And beyond the audiovisual angle, of course there are the more standard IT requirements as well - including social media integration, for example.
"It's about exceeding people's expectations within limited budgets. That's the challenge," says Cooper.
Last year saw the 255-year-old British Museum attract more visitors than ever - some 6.7 million, 20 per cent more than in 2012. Even the humble website has played a role: www.britishmuseum.org in 2013 had 19.5 million visits, up 47 per cent on 2012.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, says: "Displays on-site, loans and touring exhibitions nationally and internationally, big-screen viewings and online access mean this is truly a dynamic collection that belongs to and is used by a global citizenship."
Computacenter is one IT channel partner that has benefited from the demand for interactive audiovisuals in the museum sector. At the new Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle upon Tyne, an award-winning £26m refurbishment project combined exhibits from three locations into a new building.
It worked with audiovisual integrator Electrosonic to source, install and configure projection, touch screens, and large-format displays for its 11 galleries, which play host to delights including an interactive model of Hadrian's Wall, a replica Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, and a virtual aquarium.
Steve McLean, senior manager at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, says the channel companies won a competitive tender, presenting the best choice of equipment for its unique environment, including 15 projectors and 34 screens, and had to work effectively with a number of other third-party contractors, including exhibition design firm Casson Mann. Computacenter and Electrosonic were also responsible for testing the AV kit.
"There were numerous contractors involved in the project, and we had just six months to complete the gallery fit-outs," McLean says. "Computacenter and Electrosonic were a vital part of the team.
Although we had a good range of exhibits to work with, we wanted to create a museum experience that was exciting and dynamic."
All types of museums can benefit from creative, inspired interactive displays - although perhaps the fanciest audiovisuals have traditionally been associated with exhibits targeting younger visitors in particular.
London's Natural History Museum currently has Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story (pictured above, the Neanderthal exhibit), where the more typical mammoth tusks and bone fragments have been complemented with multi-layered projections illustrating how archaeologists discovered and identified the recently excavated ancient footprints on the Happisburgh coast, which technology helped reveal could be 950,000 years old.
In December, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended a 3D gala showing of Natural History Museum Alive, in which David Attenborough talks about extinct animals, assisted by 3D representations of the creatures.
NEC's Cooper notes that across EMEA the leisure market in general has changed a lot since the millennium, with more focus on leisure time than ever before.
"The common factor is a growing demand to inform and entertain in a stimulating, engaging way. The objective of these institutions is certainly not to make money. It is to inspire, stimulate curiosity and to entertain, as well as preserve and provide study opportunities on the artefacts," he says.
"Many museums are in a state of transition and are facing a number of special challenges to ensure survival. Nowadays, modern museum managers must also understand and fully embrace the need to attract visitors of all ages as well as develop closer partnerships with corporate organisations."
One museum - and the Mary Rose
■ A recent project involving NEC was for the Museum of Science and Industry. Its Revolution gallery now includes a nine-screen video wall introducing the showcase, including key information such as maps and guides. A "chandelier" of displays is used to register visitors in a more engaging way - enabling the harvest of customer data. Curved screens are used to give historical context, as well as display customer videos made at the aforementioned registration posts. The screens can also be used for corporate events and sponsorship opportunities.
■ Henry VIII (illustrated, right)'s famous warship, the Mary Rose, has been commemorated at a new £35m museum in Portsmouth, opened last summer, that houses the excavated remains of the wreck as well as a range of interactive exhibits. AV integrator Sysco incorporated NEC panels into some of these. Nick Butterly, exhibition co-ordinator at the Mary Rose, says successful audiovisuals are "absolutely necessary to keep the attention of the younger generation who are used to this type of interaction and can easily become bored and inattentive if it fails to deliver".
"The Mary Rose story is best told through pictures and sound, rather than text. Our objective was to place the items in context and to show how they were used, rather than to have lengthy text labels on every item that we felt would be a distraction. We want to let the artefacts speak for themselves," Butterly says.
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