Newseum Uses Technology to Tell Story of Freedom of the Press

Published: September 25, 2017
The Newseum in Washington, D.C. uses AR, VR and interactive exhibits to help visitors understand history.

There aren’t many museums where your admission for one day is also good for the next day, but not many museums are the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

The seven-level interactive museum literally has too much content for anyone, no matter how speedily he or she can walk or read, to consume in a single day. The massive facility, which is not far from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, features 28 hours of videos among its 250,000 square feet of exhibition space that’s attracted 7 million visitors since 2008.

“We changed the way museums do business,” says Newseum manager of public relations Sonya Gavankar, highlighting the interactive and experiential nature of the space that’s loaded from top to bottom with AV installed by 2014 CI Integrator of the Year Electrosonic. [related]

The Newseum includes 15 theaters and 15 galleries, with attractions for all types of people, from swimmers to skimmers to divers, says Gavankar. In total, the Newseum would add 1.5 miles to your fitness tracker if you walked every inch of it, she says.

But don’t worry about blistering your feet in the Newseum, says Gavankar, who bravely wears high heels to work on most days. The theaters with seats signify you’re about to watch a video that’s eight minutes or more, so there are plenty of places to take a load off for a while, she says. Those features include documentaries and interactive video clips.

The facility traces the history of news coverage from the 16th century until today.

Behind the Scenes at the Newseum

Every night, Newseum officials choose from more than 1,000 newspapers from around the world and display the front pages in the News Around the World exhibit, which includes one front page from each U.S. state and several international selections based on what’s going on.

That massive display is nothing compared to the 16-ton video wall that greets visitors as they enter the Newseum. The 40-foot-tall-by-22-foot-wide atrium screen is the largest indoor HD screen in the world.

And, while there are many permanent exhibits that don’t change at all, Gavankar knows people who love news and want to keep up with current events expect the same from the Newseum—and they can deliver on that hope, she says, with pop-up galleries for major news events.

Amidst all the AV and interactive exhibits throughout the Newseum are artifacts that look like the real thing—because they are. That includes a section of the Berlin Wall that’s larger than any piece of that structure anywhere in the world but Germany, unlimited access to the FBI evidence locker, and a large piece of one of the planes from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.

The FBI section of the Newseum is showing an exhibit that highlights “Fighting Crime in the Age of Terrorism” and includes the Unabomber Ted Kacynski’s cabin.

A Pulitzer Prize photo gallery features the winning entries for several decades and audio interviews with the winning shutterbugs that tell the stories behind how the winning shots happened.

One thing many occasional visitors might not know about the Newseum is how it transforms after the doors close for the day. At night, the elevators that take guests up and down the exhibit space transform into what Gavankar calls “party-vators” with full bars inside them that escort guests to Newseum Nights events that include corporate functions, wedding receptions and even proms.

Newseum Nights events can attract up to 1,200 people and the LED lights throughout the function area “go crazy” in many different colors.

Inside the Newseum Technology

Electrosonic helped design and install the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, a multi-purpose venue that includes a 4D time-travel experience. It seats almost 200 people in its 4D format and features a 57×25-foot custom curved Stewart screen.

The 4D experience takes visitors on a journalistic trip through time, where they meet celebrated reporters of the past such as Nellie Bly and Edward R. Murrow. They sit in motion base seats and feel wind, air blasts, spritzer and rumble effects as they view a 3D show created by Cortina Productions. Lighting effects were crafted by Barbizon Lighting and Electrosonic created the final show programming for the theater using their ESCAN show control software.

Newseum technology, Newseum

“The Newseum is a very sophisticated building with an open plan and enormously tall atrium, which meant there were many lighting and acoustical challenges to overcome,” said Electrosonic business development manager Andrew Kidd in the company’s case study on the project.

With most galleries wide open to the Great Hall of News, “there were issues of containing sound within the individual zones and creating good sound quality in the lobby,” says Kidd. “There are thousands and thousands of square feet of glass and concrete working against us and a few nice absorbent surfaces helping out.”

Electrosonic worked closely with acoustic designer Steve Haas of SH Acoustics to select the speaker types that best fit his acoustic design of the Newseum. The Great Hall of News also features two Sunrise Systems news tickers, which run 100 and 150 feet, respectively, along the fronts of the second and third floor balconies. Associated Press RSS news feeds streamed to the Newseum have characters six inches high.

Visitors to the Newseum begin their tour on the concourse level, where five Hearst Corporation orientation theaters and several exhibits welcome them. One 120-seat theater and four 40-seat theaters present the award-winning “What’s News,” an HD video exploring the boundaries of journalism and the public’s need to know.

In the basement, the Berlin Wall Gallery features one of only two of the original guard towers in existence along with sections of the graffiti-strewn wall. Other basement galleries spotlight a satellite news truck, a linotype exhibit, and a looped slide presentation of unforgettable photos shown on two screens.

On the fifth floor, the News History Gallery, a series of interactive touch screens chronicle artifacts from five centuries of news reporting. On the same floor is the Pulliam Family Great Books Gallery, which highlights documents related to freedom of speech and the press.

The fourth floor is home to an extensive 9/11 Gallery, which looks at the media response to the terrorist attack. Visitors descend to the third floor where the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery have unique configuration. The gallery also has graphical timelines detailing methods of transmitting the news.

On the second floor, the Interactive Newsroom includes eight “Be A TV Reporter” kiosks, which are run by Electrosonic custom control software and hardware. In this blue screen experience, which is triggered by the barcode on the entry ticket, visitors choose a backdrop and read a script from a teleprompter while full-motion MPEG video and still photos capture the moment.  Visitors can take the photo home and download the video from the Newseum’s web site with their card code.

Keeping the Newseum Technology Fresh

Certainly, there are some exhibits in the Newseum that visitors want to see when they come to D.C., but many of the spaces turn over regularly too. The latest addition to Newseum technology that we’re all learning more about is the Berlin Wall VR Experience. In it, guests can see what it feels like to climb up a guard tower before using a “hammer” to “knock down” the wall themselves.

Future VR exhibits will highlight the exploits of investigative journalist Nellie Bly and explore the life of the Unabomber, says Newseum CTO Mitch Gelman.

The Newseum is also bringing back one of its most popular exhibits, “Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe” as part of a yearlong celebration of the centennial of Kennedy’s birth, spearheaded by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the National Archives and Records Administration.

The exhibit will be on display from Sept. 29 through Jan. 7, 2018.

“Creating Camelot” showcases more than 70 intimate and iconic images of President Kennedy, first Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and their children, Caroline and John, taken by Kennedy’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe.

The original negatives of nearly all of the 70 images displayed in “Creating Camelot” were lost in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Lowe, who died in May 2001, had stored the negatives of more than 40,000 Kennedy photos in a World Trade Center bank vault. All of the negatives in the vault were lost, with the exception of 10 negatives out on loan at the time.

Newseum, Newseum technology

To create the exhibit, Newseum technology imaging technicians digitally scanned the surviving contact sheets and prints, which were never meant to be used in place of negatives for printmaking. The technicians spent more than 600 hours working to remove scratches, dust and other blemishes from the images.

To make sure the Newseum technology doesn’t make the front page by failing, Gelman and his staff walk the entire building starting at about 7 a.m. every morning, checking all theaters and screens to ensure they’re working properly. They keep lamps and monitors in reserve in case they need to be swapped out or updated, says Gelman.

The biggest challenge Gelman and his staff used to encounter was audio issues, particularly when using wireless mics in conference spaces. They’ve largely overcome that issue, he says, by buying more microphones and keeping them in designated spaces to reduce the human error that came with sharing them among several areas and having to move them, turn them on and off and set them up throughout the day.

“That builds in more predictability,” says Gelman.

The Newseum employs audio specialists, video specialists and a “streaming” team, who have helped the museum become the home to live events and TV broadcasts in recent years.

“It’s remarkable how this place transforms,” says Gelman. “It blows my mind what people are able to do with those monitors. The technology here is significant. That’s why we have events like TEDx and PBS testing out their documentaries here. This is truly a multiple-use space with a lot of technology for all of those uses.

“We’re taking emerging technologies to tell stories in new ways that fulfill our mission of reaching young audiences,” he says. That includes more augmented and virtual reality options and an improved ability to search for audio clips to go with exhibits, says Gelman.

“We want people to come in here and have fun while they’re getting the message about what these journalists did to fight for freedoms,” he says.

Click here to see a slideshow of Newseum technology at work

Posted in: Projects

Tagged with: Museum, Virtual Reality, VR

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