Lelawi Theater, National Museum of the American Indian

July 12, 2005
Cutting-Edge AV Creates Immersive Illusion of Nature Settings


Project Quick Facts

Cost: $1.2 million (AV equipment and labor)
Award Winners:
SPL Integrated Solutions
Batwin + Robin Productions
SmithGroup Architects

By Sara Malone

The paradox of the Lelawi Theater in the National Museum of the American Indian is that it employs a highly innovative combination of cutting-edge AV systems to create the illusion of a traditional Native American earth lodge. Its state-of-the-art technologies, all but invisible to visitors, are so successfully integrated into the space that they create a one-of-a-kind sensory experience.

The Lelawi Theater is a gateway to understanding the rest of the museum. The newest member of the Smithsonian family, the National Museum of the American Indian, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., between the National Air & Space Museum and the Capitol Building, celebrates Native American cultures of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Immediately after entering the museum, visitors are ushered to the fourth floor and assembled in the 120-seat Lelawi Theater.

“Lelawi” is a Lenape (Delaware) word meaning “in the middle,” a fitting name for this high-tech theater, in which the presentation emanates from hidden floor projectors to dance across a 40-foot dome.

The design of the Lelawi Theater by Batwin + Robin, Hilferty & Associates, and Jones & Jones Architect began three years before the museum opened. But by the time SPL was brought into the project as the systems integrator, about a year before the opening, the AV design of the theater had already become dated. SPL had to redesign the systems before they could be installed and integrated into the museum’s infrastructure.

The visitors’ experience begins with a 13-minute multi-media presentation titled “Who We Are,” an introduction to the exhibits. Drawn from a Native American perspective, the video explores the strength that American Indian communities derive from their relationships to the land and the environment, and from their emphasis on religion, traditional knowledge, self-government, and self-expression.

The show was shot at 11 locations across North and South America over the course of 8 months, and encompassed 13 Indian tribes. Linda Batwin, co-owner of New York-based production company Batwin + Robin and creative director/ producer of the multimedia content on display throughout the museum, says her crew employed a combination of formats. Film footage was shot on super 35mm equipment for the dome with a SLCine super lightweight camera equipped with a 6mm dome lens. Center screen materials were shot in Beta SP, DV, and mini DV video formats.

Batwin says that her decision to shoot film was based largely on the availability of more flexible lenses for shooting the dome material. “This was our best option at the time,” she says. “Today I’d probably shoot HD [high-definition video formats], since the lens choices have rapidly advanced.”

All 35mm film was transferred to digital 2K file sequences, rendered and then displayed on the dome using proprietary software and an edge-blending display technology.

“In our role as producer for the Preparation Theater, we were responsible for content development, collaborating on the theater design and designing the unique media systems’ architecture that would support our film production,” Batwin says.

While her teams shot most of the material, some was also collected from Native American filmmakers shooting a variety of video formats. Collaborating with filmmakers in various communities helped ensure that Batwin + Robin could get the right shot at the right time of year. It also served to showcase local filmmakers’ talents and to provide a unique Native American perspective on their own communities and lives.

The theater itself is a key part of the presentation. A wood-lined space reminiscent of Southwest kivas and earth lodges, the Lelawi’s design was inspired by traditional Native American architecture and storytelling. It also houses unusually sophisticated technology. This intimate, circular space features three projection surfaces: a 40-foot, 360-degree dome surrounding the audience, a vacuum-formed faux rock centered in the space, and four waffle-cloth screens replicating woven Native textile art.

The dome screen, which emphasizes the importance of the sky and nature to American Indian cultures, required a projection system that posed significant design challenges. The original idea was to position a single projector with a fish-eye lens in the center of the theater, but because no such lens existed, SEOS, a supplier of immersive display systems, developed a complex solution consisting of seven projectors hidden inside the center structure, six projectors that project around the dome, and one that shoots straight up to fill the dome’s center.

“The hemispherical perforated ceiling is also a projection screen,” says Michael Dobbs, project architect from SmithGroup. “That ceiling is projected onto by a series of seven projectors that are hidden in a central 8- by 8- by 8-foot square structure in the middle of the floor. The square structure has four steel posts with wooden inserts with bars and steel rods; it also has waffle-cloth fabric screens on the four sides. And those waffle cloths, in turn, hide a black, acoustically insulated box that hides the seven projectors that are coordinated by computer for the images that you see on the perforated, hemispherical ceiling.”

The system Dobbs describes consists of seven Barco single-chip DLP projectors. In addition, four Projection Design F1 projectors hidden in the walls project images onto the four waffle-cloth screens. The original full-dome master content was created using SEOS’ Spider software application. The content is encoded in MPEG files that are streamed from disk and synch-locked to the audio and timecode.

Extending from the floor, in the middle of the posts, is the vacuum-formed fiber glass faux rock that is also a rear projection screen. There was no room to install the projector directly under the rock, because that would have required knocking a hole into the ceiling of the third floor. Instead, a BarcoReality Sim 4, single-chip DLP projector shoots images down a fiber-optic conduit onto a screen under the rock, offering images of moving water, ice, grass, flowers, fire, and elements of nature.

“Balancing the three projector systems was a real challenge,” says Batwin, “as was keeping up with the many changes in technology over the 4- to 5-year period that we were on the job. But we’re proud of the results.”

Nine display cases filled with American Indian artifacts line the walls of the theater, and during the video, both light and sound highlight each artifact as it is connected to the story. The display cases contain fiber-optic lighting and one audio speaker.

Filling the space with sound requires 22 channels of audio. Six EAW speakers above the dome provide music and background sounds such as thunder and rain. Two Bohlender-Graebener speakers provide left-right sound for each center screen, and a Tannoy speaker is installed in the artifact cases.

“The audio system is also coordinated with all of these projection devices and screens, incorporated into the space above the projection ceiling,” notes Dobbs. “There are speakers along the catwalk above this hemispherical ceiling. The perforations allow the sound to come through. There are also major subwoofers for that surround-sound, thunderous sensation, that are placed beneath the amphitheater seating. That’s in addition to the speakers hidden in the display cases.”

Jefferson Millwork & Design engineered and installed the conical radius beech wall panel that encompasses the circular room, seats, and display cases. The look and feel of the millwork brings visitors closer to the natural setting of the American Indian.

The entire show is choreographed from the theater’s main control system, which combines products from Anitech Systems and Crestron. Anitech, which specializes in time-cue control systems for animation and theme park rides, turned out to be the best system to control the theater’s complex production. That includes the lights, sound, presentation, text translation pages, lighting of display cases, as well as the opening and closing of the two pairs of large, fire-rated doors at the beginning and end of every show. Crestron offers a user-friendly interface that enables the museum staff to easily control the technology through touch-screen panels.

Ed Sullivan, a senior design engineer at SPL, says his firm chose to use a handheld, closed-caption/text-translation device with up to seven languages available. SPL worked with Tribeworks to develop a program that ran on a PalmOne Tungsten C.

Museum visitors who need text translation services simply check out this handheld device, called the Tribeworks Museum Companion, as they walk into the Lelawi Theater. The device consists of a Tungsten C housed in a SecurePod that displays content created using iShell Mobile, running in Kinoma Player. The Museum Companion has an intuitive two-button interface so no training or support is necessary. Once seated, visitors are prompted to select a language; when the show starts, translated text is displayed on the handheld. The theater’s WiFi network and the Tungsten C keep the text in sync with the presentation. Once the show is over, visitors are asked to return the device as they exit the theater. The PDAs are installed in a plastic case so they won’t be broken, stolen, or misplaced.

“There is discussion now of providing translators at the galleries,” Sullivan says.

Outside the theater is a cast glass, LED-illuminated countdown clock for people waiting for the next show. “The glass has native symbols cast into it,” Dobbs says. “It is a very linear, wavy form of glass, about 5 feet long. The LED begins to light at one end of it and progressively illuminates the entire piece of cast glass. The amount of time that it takes for that glass to become fully illuminated is the amount of time it takes the show to run.”

The scheduling of this project was extremely important to the museum’s directors. Although the museum itself was scheduled to open in September 2004, directors wanted the Lelawi Theater to open 4 months earlier so that potential contributors could be shown the video. The theater opened as scheduled, on May 21, 2004, and the museum opened as scheduled on Sept. 20, 2004.

Throughout the final AV design and installation, SPL and Batwin + Robin used project management tools that had proven effective with earlier large-performance projects such as theaters, stadiums, and auditoriums. These included Microsoft Project, Excel spreadsheets for punchlists and progress reports, and SPL’s own Major-Project BOQ spreadsheets.

“Getting everything together for Lelawi was a lot of work, because we came in toward the end of the project. A lot of the technology originally specified didn’t pan out, and we had to figure out how to replace things,” says Sullivan. “But everyone on the team was great. We were really pleased with the way everything came together in the end. It was an extremely innovative project.”



Projection and playback systems


Video Distribution Amplifier

Gerriets International

#55 Wafflecloth

Rosco Labs

RoscoFlamex C-26 flame-proofing spray


ASR695e speakers


SB528 subwoofers


R40 in-wall speakers


Miniframe208nt & MM-8802

Crown Audio

600 CTs, 2000 CTs, 3000 CTs, & 4200IQ amplifiers


MX2424 24-track hard disk record/playback system

Anchor Audio

AN-1000X audio monitor

Williams Sound

T17 hearing assist system


U124M/Beta58 receiver and body pack & WL-184 lavalier microphone


528E microphone preamplifier


i6AW display case speaker & Reveal power monitor


9088iiLL DSP processor - 8 Line Inputs


PRO2 control processor, Ethernet control panel, touch panel, etc.


SFT-MP4000 software & various control modules

Color Kinetics

iColor Cove LED display & ENA-JB juice box


RMX-1U15TFTB/AC flip-top monitor/keyboard drawer


10085 KVM Switch. RMK-34 rack mount kit & CIS-8 KVM Cable Assembly


Proliant DL320 PC, plus Ethernet switch & wireless access point


Tungsten text reader/translation display

Middle Atlantic

Equipment Racks

Middle Atlantic

KYLK key lock kit

Atlas Sound

RWL-1 rack light


custom power circuits and Gnd bus


PL-PRO AC power conditioner



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