Portal to the Past

April 23, 2007
Technology brings the sites and sounds of WWI to life for museum’s visitors

By Christine Lewers

Until recently few knew that beneath Kansas City, Missouri's imposing World War I Liberty Memorial was an expanse akin to the undercrofts of medieval churches.

Its original purpose was to house a network of columns and beams to support the terrace surrounding the memorial's focal point: a 217-foot tower in honor of those who served in the war that was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926.

"We realized we had this opportunity to add an interpretive element on a war that has been fading from America's imagination," says world-renowned museum designer Ralph Appelbaum, recalling when he first saw the space 8 years ago. "We felt that within that large space we could create the kinds of immersive environments that would convey the story in a visceral way, so that what you hear, what you see, and what you feel deepens the emotional experience."

Liberty Memorial’s art deco tower rises 217 feet. Underneath, a world-class museum gives visitors a high-tech yet very personal window on World War I.
PHOTO: National World War I Museum

The resulting National World War I Museum opened beneath the Liberty Memorial in December 2006. The 30,000-square-foot exhibition is the crowning achievement of an 11-year, $102 million civic project to restore a crumbling landmark and add to it a world-class museum that gives visitors a high-tech yet very personal window on a war that marked the beginning of America's global power.

Selling the public on the museum meant that it needed to have a strong educational component and appeal across age groups, says Steve Berkheiser, the museum's executive director, who led the public campaign for the Liberty Memorial Association.

To meet this goal, museum designers relied on technology to engage a modern audience, says Appelbaum. The exhibition is an orchestration of video and audio as well as interactive experiences that invite audience participation. These experiences are integrated into an underground shell designed to create drama and serve as a metaphor for the war.

Restoration and Expansion
But before exhibits could take shape, the monument needed to be renovated and brought up to code, and the underground space expanded. In 1995, Steve Abend of ASAI Architects in Kansas City was hired to lead the design team.

It was a big job. Liberty Memorial sits on a 40-acre expanse just south of Union Station and includes the tower as well as two crypt-like halls that sit atop a deck built into a hillside exposing a 488-foot-long and 55-foot-high north face that was in danger of collapsing. In addition, insufficient weatherproofing had damaged the substructure.

To solve these problems the team designed a steel support system around the base of the tower and replaced the underground beams and columns to support a new, weatherproofed deck. On the south side they expanded the underground space and built an entrance to the cavity. The expansion made space for a lobby as well as other public and administrative spaces. The existing underground space around the tower's base was reserved for the museum. From the lobby visitors look up through a 2,400-square-foot skylight built into the deck to see the clean lines of the art deco tower soaring into the sky. "The scale of everything is very large," says Abend. "The skylight informs you that you are underground and makes for a dramatic view."

The lobby's other light source comes from a luminous two-story drum of laminated glass panels attached by structural sealant tape to a self-supporting grid of aluminum tubes. Spaced 4 feet inside the glass wall is a concrete wall. The two walls wrap around the 55-foot underground shaft of the memorial's tower, forming a double skin that holds the museum within.

The service space between the walls conceals 400-watt metal halide floodlights manufactured by Kim and installed to reflect off the inside concrete wall, scattering the light evenly within the space and giving the museum's case a glow visible from the lobby. "They're made to be used outside, but it worked out very well here," says co-lead lighting designer Kyle Chepulis of lighting design firm Technical Artistry.

The space also hides the back side and wiring of 10 50-inch NEC plasma monitors mounted in portrait mode into the outside of the museum's glass shell. Surface Acoustic Wave technology touch screens by Mass Multimedia mounted in kiosks in front of each monitor let people in the lobby choose what the monitors display from among a collection of photographs of people who lived in the WWI era. The displays are a preview of what's inside the museum.

A challenge for lighting designers was to make sure the museum's collection of 49,000 war artifacts was properly lit but that the lighting didn't interfere with projection. Here, projectors point straight down to cast moving images onto the gallery floor. PHOTO: Andris Kasparovics

Digitized Artifacts
Visitors enter the museum from the lobby by crossing over a futuristic glass bridge. Inside, an absence of natural light and unfinished, blackened ceilings make ideal conditions for the museum's theaters and exhibits that rely on monitors and projection, says Eric Bosch, an architect with Kansas City's capital improvements office who managed the museum's design/build team, which included Abend's firm. In addition, a dedicated mechanical system keeps the cases safe from moisture, adds Bosch.

A futuristic glass bridge connects visitors to the past.
PHOTO: National World War I Museum

The semicircular space to the east of the tower's base takes visitors through events of the war pre-U.S. involvement from 1914 to 1917. The west side focuses on the American experience. Throughout, the sites and sounds recorded during the war are as much on display as the war's physical record.

Above and between cases of artifacts are video murals of moving pictures and still photographs from the war projected from Christi DS+60 projectors onto scrim material. The exposed projectors and Chief ceiling mounts are painted flat black. "To your eye they just disappear into the ceiling," says Thursby Pierce, project manager with Electrosonic Inc., who provided the museum's AV engineering. In other places, Christi DS+25 projectors point straight down from the ceiling to project moving images onto the gallery floor.

"Our lighting design had to work hand-in-hand with the projection," says Chepulis. "We had to make sure the artifacts got light, but we didn't interfere with the projection." Above the cases, where large still photographs and graphics alternate side by side with projected images, Chepulis used a system of Cooper Ametrix elliptical wall wash fixtures with dimmable fluorescent lamps suspended from the museum's electrical raceway strut at increments of about 3 feet. Because it was a modular system, he planned to leave gaps in the lighting wherever there was projection and fine-tuned the system during installation. In addition, Chepulis specified that the fixtures come with side louvers so that the lamps' glare wouldn't be seen by guests looking up at them from an angle.

Elsewhere, first-person accounts of life in the trenches play from Bose FS3 speakers mounted above viewports in the walls of a full-scale, 80-foot-long diorama depicting German, English, and French battle trenches. Another exhibit lets visitors step into a crater that opens up like a cone around them rising 16 feet and stretching 30 feet across at the top. Microwave sensors trigger speakers to play back the words of the people who experienced shelling. Here Pierce used a full-range EAW CP621 speaker centrally mounted from the ceiling as well as four Bose cube speakers hidden behind props to fill out the sound.

Budgeting for a Big Screen
The two theaters are also venues for the museum's collection of wartime documentary footage. The most complicated and expensive to produce was the show within the Horizon Theater.

"The Horizon Theater was originally designed as a display, but has resulted in more of a full-scale theatrical production," Bosch says. As concepts for the theater and the museum's other packages evolved, his challenge was to keep the total costs within the museum's $26.6 million budget. Vendors were chosen as much for their records of staying on budget as their technical expertise, Bosch says.

Visitors enter the Horizon Theater onto a balcony that looks 15 feet down onto a battlefield diorama of soldiers drudging through mud and twisted war debris. Behind the scene is a 100-foot-wide screen onto which is projected a film produced by Donna Lawrence Productions delving into issues America grappled with before entering the war.

Moving pictures and photographs from the war are projected from six Christie digital projectors onto a 100-foot-wide canvas-like screen in the Horizon Theater. PHOTO: Andris Kasparovics.

"People just expect quality images now, and it takes a lot of effort, especially when you're dealing with images that are almost 100 years old," says Pierce, explaining that not only was the projection screen huge, but it also wasn't entirely flat. Instead a canvas-like scrim with natural pleats drapes across the wall.

To meet the challenge, Pierce and his crew took six Christie DS+60 projectors, pointed them straight up, tilted them sideways in relation to the screen, and used mirrors to bounce portrait-mode images onto the large surface. Electrosonic used its own Mediasonic video server product as well as an edge blending and warping engine by 3D Perception to lighten the areas where the six video signals overlap. They also used a physical mask over the projection lens to further correct the image.

"We could have possibly done it with fewer projectors and fewer bounce mirrors," says Pierce. "But this is a very good, very cost-effective way to do it." And although the scrim presented some projection challenges, it cost a fraction of what a similar-sized traditional projection screen would have cost.

Audio in the theater comes from subwoofers mounted over the guest balcony, speakers behind the screen, and centrally located, ceiling-mounted DSA 250s and 230s by Eastern Acoustics Works with software for eliminating sound reflections.

Electrosonic also provided six DL1 fixtures manufactured by High End Systems to support the theater's extensive theatrical lighting designed by Technical Artistry. The fixtures are video projectors that pan, tilt, and even zoom in on objects. They project color, patterns, explosions, and moving images onto the tableau, blending the diorama with the images on the screen.

Making War and Peace Interactive
The museum's interactive elements also highlight wartime imagery and sound.

Two long, curved tables manufactured by Potion Design make up the museum's interactive study stations. The tables are covered with a quarter inch of DuPont Corian, which serves as the projection surface for overhead Christie DS+25 projectors. The projectors shoot imagery produced by Second Story Interactive Studios onto the Corian at each of the tables' 12 stations. People at the stations use LED pens like mouses to scroll across the screen and make selections. Wide-angle cameras beneath the countertop read the position of the light, sending the information to the computers, which then send the video to the projectors.

Scenarios laid out on the tables let visitors in groups or individually play the parts of national leaders working out issues of making war and peace. Visitors can also try flying an airplane, making and e-mailing a war poster, or strategizing battles.

"This is not something that you just go to look at," says Berkheiser about the museum. "There's an educational experience built into it."

Next to the tables are six glass-enclosed audio alcoves each with two Tannoy CMS501 ceiling speakers that play music, poetry, and prose from the war depending on selections guests make using Crestron touch panels.

Two flush-mounted 46-inch NEC monitors with 3M touch screen overlays make up the museum's battlescape maps. Beneath the maps, Dakota Audio Mini Array speakers keep the audio localized while visitors explore the geography of the war's various offensives.

As proof that the museum's technology is engaging people, Berkheiser says he's already seeing repeat visitors. "I think the museum is a perfect blending of telling the story with powerful audio and visuals with beautifully displayed artifacts," he says. "You see how the war affects the everyday lives of ordinary people."

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