National Museum of the American Indian

May 18, 2005
Latest Addition to Smithsonian Family Uses High-Tech to Celebrate Tradition (Part 1 of 2)

Part 1 | 2

The newest Smithsonian on the National Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), an imaginative melding of traditional artifacts and cutting-edge technology that brings Native American cultures to life.

The museum opened last September on a 4.25-acre site next to the National Air and Space Museum, just south of the U.S. Capitol. Total construction costs were $199 million. The exterior of the five-story, 250,000-square-foot curvilinear building is textured, golden-hued Kasota limestone that calls to mind natural rock formations.

Realizing the museum’s complex design required a highly coordinated effort involving a number of architectural firms:

  • Chief architect and project designer was Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) of Ottawa, Canada.
  • Design architects were GBQC Architects of Philadelphia and Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw).
  • Project architects included Jones & Jones Architects, Landscape Architects Ltd. of Seattle, and SmithGroup of Washington, D.C., in association with Lou Weller (Caddo) and the Native American Design Collaborative, and Polshek Partnership Architects of New York City.
  • Ramona Sakiewstewa (Hopi) and Donna House (Navajo/Oneida) served as design consultants.

Inside the museum, some 800,000 objects help illuminate 10,000 years of history and more than 1,000 indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere. Because the purpose of the museum is to offer a glimpse at the complexities of native cultures, Native Americans took the lead in all phases of its planning, design, and construction, imbuing even the smallest details of the exhibits with meaning and symbolism.

To showcase the stories, objects, and lives of Native Americans, the museum staff and designers chose to incorporate state-of-the-art technology, wiring the building with more than 400 multiple communications systems outlets controlled from a single network operations center in the basement of the building.

“There are more than 100 different AV programs in the exhibits and public areas of the building,” says Kathy Suter, the museum’s Media Coordinator. “I would say about 85 percent of the hardware that delivers the programming to these display units is all centralized in our network control center.”

Visitors enter from the entrance area, a 120-foot-tall circular atrium with a central wooden floor for dance performances, a domed skylight, and a staircase that curls upward through four floors. Anchoring this soaring space is an information desk and, above it, the Welcome Wall, a 20-foot-long thin-laminate, rear-projection screen running a continuous loop of AV programming, welcoming visitors in 150 Native languages.

From the Potomac Area, visitors are ushered to the fourth floor, where the exhibit really begins in the 120-seat Lelawi Theater, with a 13-minute introductory film about the exhibits from a Native American perspective.

The design of the Lelawi Theater by Batwin + Robin, Hilferty & Associates, and Jones & Jones Architect began three years before the museum opened. SPL Integrated Solutions was hired as the AV systems integrator about a year before the opening of the theater, by which time the AV design was about 2 years old. SPL needed to redesign the AV systems before they could be installed and integrated into the building’s infrastructure.

The theater, a wood-lined space reminiscent of southwest kivas and earth lodges, was inspired by traditional Native American architecture and storytelling, yet it houses very sophisticated technology. Its 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 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 design challenges. The original idea was to position a single projector with a fish-eye lens in the center. Because no such lens existed, SEOS, a supplier of visual display systems, was forced to develop a complex system 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 carved into the dome channels using SEOS’ Spider software application. The content is encoded in MPEG files that are streamed from disk and 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, since 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 conduit onto a reflector under the rock, offering images of moving water, ice, grass, flowers, fire, and elements of nature.

Nine display cases filled with American Indian objects 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 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. 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 hand-held, 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. The text is kept in sync with the presentation via the theater’s WiFi network. 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,” he says.

Outside the theater is a cast glass, LED-illuminated countdown clock. “The glass has sun 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.”

When visitors exit the theater they return to the Potomac area and the dance performance floor. Along the ramp are a series of sculptures of woven copper bands and solid, patinaed copper rails inspired by Native American basket weaving. Some of the copper bands conceal conduit for stereo speakers and a junction box, enabling museum staff to set up and remove speakers quickly when needed for a performance on the central dance floor.

A granite bench that lines the circular dance floor space also hides AV and junction boxes for microphones and for the speakers that can be attached above the copper sculptures. In addition, TV cabling boxes connect via conduit to outlets on the street to accommodate mobile TV teams that want to feed live broadcasts to production vans parked outside.

On the main floor is the 400-seat Mary and Louise Rasmuson Theater auditorium for performances, lectures, plays, and movies, among other things. Like the Lelawi Theater, this auditorium is circular, wood lined, and very technologically advanced. This space, with its vertical, textured wood walls, conjures up a pine forest, while the dark blue acoustical ceiling with its twinkling “stars” recalls the night sky. A surrounding lateral aisle allows actors into the audience, a necessary component of many American Indian performances.

In addition to the theater and performance spaces, high-tech gallery spaces provide permanent exhibition areas built around three distinct themes:

  • “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World”
  • “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories,” and
  • “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities.”

Equipment located in a central control room distributes programming via CAT-5 cabling for RGB sources and via fiber-optic and conventional cabling for other AV content.

The technology in these spaces was designed by the museum’s staff and PPI Consulting, while Electrosonic Systems Inc. served as AV systems integrator for the exhibition areas.

“I think one of the objectives the museum had, like all Smithsonian museums, was to have systems that are very reliable,” says Bob Haroutunian, principal at PPI Consulting. “We used an AMX system called NetLinx to create an automated show-control system for the galleries that would do everything from start the system up in the morning to shut the system down in the evening. It provides manual override for special events, continuously monitors the performance of the system, and alerts the museum staff if there is a discrepancy or component failure.

“The other thing that we did that we’re proud of in the building is that all the media systems are centralized into two master control rooms. It makes everything much more efficient, and the museum is able to maintain much more secure environmental conditions for the equipment. It also gave a lot more flexibility to the architects and the exhibit designers and museum staff, because the only thing you have up in the exhibits are the actual video displays themselves, and the speakers. Everything else is remoted back to the control rooms.”

This simplified the museum staff’s goal of carefully integrating multimedia content into the exhibits so it never stands apart from the intellectual and physical environments created by the exhibit designers.

“Some of the experiences are integral to the physical design,” says Suter. “You’ve got little monitors in what look like a bunch of high school lockers when we’re talking about the high school program in the community. In another area we have one of our media programs playing on a regular RCA TV because the environment is a living room. We tried to work those things together so that the media didn’t separate itself from everything else the visitor was experiencing in the space.”

However, most of the images are presented on flat-panel displays that are fully integrated into the exhibits. These include 15 3M Microtouch touchscreen LCD displays and 60 LCD displays in the 8- to 20-inch range, and 12 plasma displays in the 37- to 60-inch range.

“There are a couple of places where the media and technology work together to create atmospheric events, most notably in the third floor gallery, called ‘Our Lives,’ ” Suter says. “As you walk into it, there are two full-size rear projections on either side of the entryway. On the visitors’ side of the screen is a sheet of glass that is only partially silvered, so that it has a little bit of reflective mirror capability. There are downlights above that are on a pulsed dimmer, so that at times the light is very bright and you can see yourself very well in comparison to the projection. And then the lights go down and the projection takes over. As the curatorial sign says, Native people walk among us every day.”

The “Our Lives” exhibition includes two video walls in exhibits devoted to social and celebration activities. The walls use Clarity 50-inch and Wildcat 40-inch rear-projection “cubes” in 3x3 and 3x4 arrays. Panasonic PT-D-7500 DLP projectors are employed for large projected images.

In addition to the three main exhibition areas, numerous displays showcase selections from the hundreds of thousands of objects in the NMAI collections. Called “Windows on Collections: Many Hands, Many Voices,” these displays are interpreted by an innovative interactive touchscreen system that features software by Magian Design Studio controlling Richardson 19-inch NEC touchscreen displays.

“Our ‘Windows on Collections’ are a series of rather extensively large cases - two of them are at least 40 feet long - that are full of objects from the collections that we knew people would want to see,” Suter says. “Instead of cluttering the visuals of the case with text descriptions, visitors learn about the objects through interactive touchscreen kiosks. The screens mimic what you see before you in the case. You can select an object from the case on the screen. You then drill down to your chosen object to learn some basic information about it and get a close-up image that you can zoom in on.”

“In some cases,” she adds, “where we’ve had a chance to talk to curators and videotape them, some of the objects have video and audio clips with them. The nice thing is that this is a dynamic database, so the curatorial team can keep adding new information, and as we have more opportunity to do more videotaping, we can continue to add new audio and video clips.”

Program sources for the galleries and exhibits are standard Dell Optiplex computers for the computer-interactive displays, video players with removable hard disc drives for the video, and solid state audio players for audio-only exhibits.

Audio equipment includes Mackie DX810 mixer/processors for audio-signal processing, QSC CX-168 multi-channel amplifiers, and loudspeakers from vendors such as Tannoy, EAW, and Bag End. To minimize sound overlap between exhibits, 35 custom-made Dakota Focused Array loudspeakers are placed out of sight above the visitors.

“It really is a very efficient design,” says Haroutunian. “One nice thing about NMAI is it’s new. You get to work from a blank sheet of paper. You can work from new technologies, and the cabling is new, and the strategies, and how you wire, and the methodologies are all new. That’s a great treat. That’s a great opportunity.”

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