In 1954, The Franklin Institute Science Museum built a temporary six-month exhibit, a two story tall, 35' diameter walk-through model of the human heart. Fifty years later, my team and I were asked to renovate this extremely popular exhibit, and for good measure, we had to come up with an additional 5,000 sq. ft. of cutting edge, high-tech exhibits about the human heart and heart health. No problem…and would you like fries with that?
After a 17-year career spanning theatre and theme park entertainment, I suddenly found myself fully immersed in the field of museum exhibit design as director of exhibits for the Institute. And for my rookie project, I was put in charge of refreshing Philadelphia's best-loved icon, The Giant Heart. Fortunately, I was given a first rate design team to help me see it through. Exhibit designer Brad Bartley, developer Laura Selicaro, and technical designer Jeff Bechtel worked together to create an outstanding exhibit that has been lauded by both the critics and the public. But the road to success was not always a smooth one.
The first thing to understand about museum design is it's all about the content. No, really, it's all about the content. And by content I don't mean a simple story of star-crossed love in which a boy and girl are forced into ritual suicide by the hatred of their warring families. Content, in museum speak, is a series of educational goals that must be realized in three dimensions to allow guests to interact with or observe phenomena in engaging, open-ended investigations that lead to teachable moments (we really talk like that). The next thing to realize about museum design is that each piece that is created, be it an interactive exhibit, a media piece, or a recreation of an operating room, is really just a show. And we've all created shows, right? But in this case, the team and I had to create 32 of them.
So, once I had the epiphany to treat each exhibit device as a show, I was able to break the process down into recognizable chunks. First, we needed the script, which was the educational content. Topics ranged from medical imaging and the benefits of exercise, to how the blood transport system works and how medical science has progressed through the ages. Next was to figure out how to tell each story — to engage the audience while still delivering the educational content. For our topics, we used a magic machine that looks inside the human body in four different ways, an opera that only works when you pedal an exercise bike, an animated music video with a soundtrack by They Might Be Giants, and finally, a time-traveling pinball machine that allows doctors from seven historical eras to diagnose ailments. This process leads us to the really fun part: figuring out how to make this stuff work.
One of my standing orders for this project was that all the technology we were using had to be off-the-shelf, mature technology. Museums are notorious for inventing their own technology to run their exhibits. This is historically a cost-driven decision, but with the maturation of show technology (thanks in large part to theme parks), museums are now in a position to be able to afford top-notch lighting and display technology. With this in mind, tech designer Jeff Bechtel and I went to work designing the systems that would bring these experiences to life. Since this exhibit was going to be very media-intensive, we decided early on that all playback devices would be solid state.
For our video-driven interactives, we chose the Alcorn-McBride slate of digital video machines, coupled with their I/O 64 show control units. These units were supplied and installed by Edwards Technologies, Inc. of El Segundo, CA. For show control, we used the I/O 64, as our exhibits were completely choice-based rather than time-based, so no show synchronization was required. In the case of the time traveling pinball machine, the guests would first choose an ailment via a button connected to the I/O 64. The controller would then put a pinball in play, the guest would launch the pinball, and it would fall into one of seven slots, each assigned to a doctor from a specific historic era (from ancient Egypt to modern medicine). Once the video clip of the doctor played, the system reset to the top, waiting for the next choice by a guest. To further complicate things, to make the pinball conceit work, we placed the 37' LCD 16:9 ratio monitor in a “portrait” configuration — when we shot the actors, we had to turn the camera on its side. For that matter, we turned all the editing monitors on their sides, as well.
Many of the exhibits were designed to be “real time” interactives, meaning, simply, that what the guest does affects the environment on screen in real time, just like a video game. Our biggest challenge was the Exercise Opera, a four-station exhibit in which there are four pieces of exercise apparatus, and each piece controls one of four characters on the screen (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). As long as you pedal your machine, that character sings to you about the benefits of exercise. Once you stop, the character stops. If all four bikes are stopped, the curtain drops, and the show ends. To accomplish this, we had to create a single computer-based environment that could have one of four characters triggered based on input from the bikes. Each of the bikes is connected to a standard PLC through a proximity sensor placed on the flywheel of the exercise bike. As the PLC receives the input from the sensor, it puts out a steady stream of serial strings that the main show PC reads (one string per bike). The PC then triggers the individual .wav sound files and flash animation routines through Macromedia Director that is assigned to each bike.
Another of our more interesting PC-based exhibits is The Amazing Imaging Machine. This is an application using an existing product called the I-Wall by Lynch Exhibits. It is a self-contained touchscreen computer on a 5' slider that allows you to scroll over a picture of a human body and look inside like a Star Trek med scanner. And by touching buttons on screen, you can change the view from MRI to X-ray to CAT scan to Gamma Bone Scan.
While Betchel and I were figuring out how to make these things work, Laura Selicaro and Brad Bartley were busy figuring out the environment in which to place them. We were aided by two seemingly disconnected discoveries. First, when we demolished the room to place the new exhibit, we discovered a wealth of original neo-classical ornamentation on the walls. Second, we found a book in the museum library about the 1939 World's Fair (aka “The World of Tomorrow”). We then combined the two to create our own idealized version of a World's Fair pavilion, bridging the original architecture of the room (built in 1933) with the streamlined look of the 1939 fair. This look was reflected in everything from the bases holding the interactive exhibits, to the theatre for the Exercise Opera.
One of our biggest challenges was the 50-year-old Giant Heart itself. It had been decades since it had been renovated, so we spent a lot of time trying to update the experience. Our first job was to get a full scenic renovation courtesy of sculptor Dave Barnes and scenic artist Paul Barker. The heart was originally plaster and had been fiber-glassed sometime in the 70s. We took this opportunity to repair the existing fiberglass and add some new internal sculptures like heart valves and lung alveoli.
Next, we redid the lighting system, which consisted of a handful of old incandescent fixtures and a fading fiber optic system. We replaced everything with LEDtronics super bright MR-16 LED lamps. As it turns out, museums have a tendency not to replace burned out lamps, so we opted to put in the longest lasting lamps we could get. The final piece was a new sound and video system to provide the classic “lub-dub” sound guests expect from a giant heart. But to bring the experience into the 21st century, we added a section in the lungs where we project blood cells on the floors and walls of the pathway. As you walk along, the cells go from blue (non-oxygenated) to red (oxygenated). This effect was accomplished by three Mitsubishi DLP projectors bouncing off of front surface mirrors through the ceiling of the pathway. The projectors are playing a continuous 60-second CG animated loop off of an Alcorn McBride DVM4. For the color transformation, we simply used red and blue gel over the projection ports so all we had to do was feed all three projectors the same animation loop. But as far as the guests are concerned, the color changes.
So, there you have it: proof that a theatrical designer can find happiness in the museum field. And as I move forward in this new career, I know that I can always fall back on my years of theatrical training because, honestly, everybody loves show business.