When was the last time you visited a museum? When you were at school? While on holiday? Well, it is time to re-discover the museums in South Africa and look into a growing and inspiring sector for the AV industry. Geny Caloisi talks to key players in this industry and finds out what it takes to succeed.

South Africa has more than 300 museums all over the country. This might not seem an enormous amount if you think that London alone has 240. Still South Africa’s relationship with its heritage is somehow different to that of Europe.

Museums here are newer and more unusual. They can be found in ex-gold mine sites, cultural villages, some elegant 18th century houses or modern buildings. There isn’t a long tradition of object collection and many times the stories told are based on past events for which there are no objects per se, but rather an interesting tale. This is where AV technology can help to bring the past into the present and make it relevant, engaging and educational for people of all ages.

“South Africa doesn’t have a culture of museums visiting that Europe has,” confides Gavin Olivier, founder of Digital Fabric. “Only after the Second World War we became sophisticated enough to have museums, but in the beginning they were designed just for white audiences. Only since democracy have black people been included in the heritage narrative, telling the wider story.”

Digital Fabric is a systems integrator and AV consultancy that specialises in providing tailored solutions for the museums sector. “There are not many off the shelf products in this market in South Africa, so we make sure we partner with people that can carry out the brief and fulfill the client’s vision.”

A close partner to Digital Fabric is Totem Media, an exhibitions and learning experiences designer company. Totem was born in London 1987, founded by Francis Gerard as Totem Productions Ltd, an independent documentary filmmaker company.

Gerard recalls: “I came to museums via documentary film – I had over 20 years of experience with major documentary series for the BBC and ITV companies and well as at Discovery and History channels. While making a film about the Forbidden City in Beijing I helped China’s cultural relics department assemble objects and the narrative storytelling that went into a major international travelling exhibition. I was so fascinated by the project that I slowly but surely changed Totem Media into a fully fledged exhibitions, museum development entity.”

Gerard, who was raised in South Africa and is married to a Chinese writer, has a particular interest in these societies and has over time expanded Totem Media in South Africa and China.

For many projects Olivier and Gerard have put their heads together to find the best way of telling stories for different museums. Sometimes the use of innovative AV technology is essential, but not always.

“We don’t begin with AV or any technology,” says Gerard “We start every exhibition as a voyage of discovery – we need to get under the skin of the ideas that will form the backbone of the exhibition’s narrative. So the careful understanding of what the exhibition is in all its iterations comes first. It’s only then that we look at what media will best tell the story and carry the message. This could be commissioned art instillations as well as AV and interactive technologies.”

Adriénne van den Heever from Cultural Kaleidoscope, a specialist in Arts and Culture Management, who also works with Totem Media and Digital Fabric, agrees. “Technology is exciting and the constant developments in the audiovisual arena can be seductive. We live in a world that is driven by instant gratification and a plethora of digital interfaces that often influence the demand to incorporate the latest technological widget into the museum environment. However, for AV technology to be effective, it is critical to have a healthy balance of technologies that are  traditional and contemporary. It is imperative to cater to a range of visitors. Generally speaking older visitors engage with a more traditional approach, while younger visitors revel in interactive exhibits.”

An interesting project where Cultural Kaleidoscope and Digital Fabric worked together is at the Liliesleaf Museum. The Liliesleaf Farm is in Rivonia, Johannesburg and was the centre of ANC military operations. It was on this 28-acre farm in July 1963 that key leaders of the liberation struggle were arrested following a raid by the security police. Today, the farm has reopened as a museum to commemorate the liberation struggle, for current and future generations.

The manor house boosts an interactive table, which is a 3D interface consisting of video, images, audio and text. The interface is browsed by visitors using two aluminum ‘navigators’ that allow them to view info about the apartheid era in South Africa.

“Gone are the days of static dioramas where visitors look passively at unchanging displays,” points out Rahle Dusheiko, creative director at Pixel Project, a company that develops software for interactive applications. “It is very important to ensure that the right product is used in the right way and context. We work with reputable AV suppliers and use robust and reliable products to ensure this is the case. Technology and software should integrate well together. It’s not just about delivering content that people watch – but rather creating memories and facilitating the transference of knowledge.”

The favoured equipment brands for museums, among all interviewees are: NEC, Christie and projectiondesign on the projectors front. Crown Audio, BSS Audio, JBL when it comes to audio and also Alcorn McBride which provides audio, video, lighting and show control products for themed entertainment. One of the most important things these designers and integrators look out for is brand that has local representatives with good technical support.

John Petrie director of Sonic Factory, the South African distributor of Alcorn McBride gives three top tips from a technical perspective: “When choosing which AV equipment you are going to implement in a museum you have to bare in mind: 1- that the equipment is reliable enough for long hours of continuous operation; 2- the system must be as foolproof as possible as often there is no permanent staff member on site to look after it; and 3 – technology must be used in such a way that it enhances both the visitor experience as well as the operational effectiveness of the museum.”

Sonic Factory provides design, installation, programming and support services for all its projects. The company has also a recording and editing studio, which is often used for the production museum’s audio content.

Let me entertain you

The trend in this market is clearly to incorporate more interaction and wow factor effects to provide museum visitors with an experience that will live long with them.

Digital Fabric’s Olivier says: “Gesture based technology is key along with high quality applications. As with most things the visitors are exposed to a vast range of high quality apps that work well in their daily life and they expect it in attractions. It sounds obvious, but in practice the museums here and abroad are generally behind this curve.”

Interactive displays, full HD video, good quality audio, smart phone applications and immersive ‘4D’ type cinema experiences are on the up, but the problem for museums is their budget. Olivier points put that in South Africa it’s easier to find the capital cost to build the museum than the operational money to run the museum.

Van den Heever puts it beautifully: “I think that the majority of museum curators are visionary. They have the ability to conceive and imagine a space in their mind, as well as the skills and know-how to transform abstract ideas into tangible realities. The frustrating part is that the vision is often constrained by budget restrictions or lack of funding.”

Pixel Project’s Dusheiko recalls one of her favourite projects, in which she worked together with Digital Fabric and Culture Kaleidoscope: “We are very proud of the installation we did at the Umgungundlovu Multimedia Centre near Ulundi, KwaZulu- Natal, South Africa. The client wanted to present the history of the area in a way that it would have a huge impact. The area is very rural, so it was important that the solution was simple for anyone to use – regardless of their experience with digital technology.

“We created a table carved into a relief map of the surrounding area with three projectors mounted above creating a 3D mapping seamless image. This is an interactive story-telling experience that educates visitors about the interesting and diverse history of the Emakhosini Valley.

“People can see a large projected aerial image of the valley. There are two touch screens mounted on the side of the table from which a story could be selected. The stories played out as narrated animations that were projected onto the table. These stories were recreated using illustrations and sometimes actual photography where they were available. The interface, content and animations are available in English and Zulu.”

For this industry to grow and prosper these experts agree that there needs to be good and clear communication between all areas of the team; from the curators and museums managers, to the content designers/developers, system integrators and installers. In terms of technology, the challenges are the same for any operation with many thousands or millions of visitors – design for easy operation, clear view lines, good flow of people and clear understanding of the public. The technology needs to be capable of operation up to 24/7 and last for some years. Using brands that provide good technical support locally is also an advantage.

Museums need to tell stories in a creative and engaging manner. As with all creative processes, there are various stages to go through from design to implementation. Things might change, projects will be tight on time, there will be challenges, but the delivery team needs to work together from the designer through to the AV integrator and software producer. Clear and open communication and following the advice of experts in this field will guarantee success.