The Russian Museum of Jewish History and Tolerance Centre in Moscow became the largest of its kind when Israeli President, Shimon Peres, and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, officially opened its doors on November 8 last year.

Whilst the international trend in museums is to adopt higher levels of interactivity and unusual display technologies, it’s not everyday that a single museum is able to commit to cutting edge interactivity within traditional museum craftsmanship of the highest order. This fine act of balance requires vast experience and large budgets, something that museum design leaders Ralph Appelbaum and Associates (RAA) are quite familiar with. The New York based practice have been responsible for some of the largest and most prestigious museums globally including the American Museum of Natural History and several major Holocaust Museums. The Moscow project was therefore well suited to their vast experience in combining high levels of design and build detail with extraordinary digital content.

The Moscow project was complicated in that decision-making and implementation involved many key role players; from client to RAA, to Spanish Museum fit out contractor General de Producciones y Diseno (GPD) and on to the various specialist contractors. The technical end of this was awarded to Austrian firm Kraftwerk Living Technologies, well known for their large installations in the visitor attraction arena. Kraftwerk turned to South African partners Digital Fabric to provide both project management and on site implementation services. The relationship between Kraftwerk and Digital Fabric extends back to 2006 when Kraftwerk’s 4D motion base seats were used in a Digital Fabric project at Gold Reef City. “We have maintained a close working relationship ever since and the Moscow opportunity was a natural extension of that relationship’, says Digital Fabric’s Gavin Olivier. “Kraftwerk was aware of our extensive museum experience, not just in the black boxes, but in our sensitivity to detailed exhibition build and content’. Digital Fabric’s technical director, Alex Sanfilippo, then engaged with a team of designers from RAA, GPD, Kraftwerk and various content producers over several weeks at the mock-up facility that GPD had established in Seville, Spain for proof of concept trials. With final designs in hand, the SA based team of seven set out for 6 long and challenging months in Moscow.

The museum

Constructed within a former Moscow bus depot; the museum is practically a building within a building. Covering almost 5000m2, the exhibition is a lesson in detailed visitor flow and creative use of space. The building infrastructure is minimal with most of the spaces defined by large-scale exhibition elements. The narrative is one of Jewish History within Russia and as such dedicates much of its resources to describing the Jewish way of life, beliefs and philosophies.

The visitor journey starts in the Beginnings Theatre, a sixty-seat 4D theatre in the round that uses three curved projection screens around the perimeter to tell the story of Creation from a Jewish perspective. Each screen is served by a three-projector-wide blend, but twin stacked to create passive 3D playback, making for a total rig of eighteen projectors. An advanced auto-alignment system is used for automatic warping and blending of all 18 projectors and was developed by Brainsalt Media. The projection is augmented by multichannel audio, motion bases, heavy fog, wind effects and, on cue, light rain from above and in the hand rails compliments of a high pressure water purification plant. This theatre required a dedicated plant room to house the compressed air, water and fog systems; all of which formed part of the audiovisual team’s responsibilities.

Further aspects of Jewish life are manifested in highly detailed and themed spaces such as the Shetl, which explains, amongst others, the Synagogue, Marketplace, Shabbat, Making a Living, and Lessons at Cheddar, typical of the time. There is no shortage of technology in this area including an interactive Torah, clever screens behind mirror glass, virtual books and displays of everyday objects that are touch sensitive, triggering dramatic interactive re-enactments and lighting crossfades on four metre high theatrical gauzes. Perhaps the cleverest part of this area is the complete invisibility of the technology, not a single screen, speaker or sensor is visible to the visitor.

At the perimeter of the main exhibition floor there are a series of six studios, each dealing with a more specific time based event in history, such as the development of cities, the Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. These studios are crammed with interactivity, from speaking, interactive coffee shop tables to numerous iPads and larger touchscreens and culminating in a projection touch-table in the shape of a five-pointed star. This exhibit deserves special mention in that it is covered by five projectors, all of which overlap in the centre of the star creating a complex geometry that is seamlessly blended and warped in the centre where all five projectors converge. Touch input is via five custom capacitive foils fitted below the projection surface. As per the Beginnings Theatre an auto-alignment system is used to reset the crops, blends and warps each morning to compensate for movement that occurs over time in the building structure. ” It sounds quite simple, and while the auto alignment is very powerful, the mechanical alignment and accuracy of installation was paramount,’ says Sanfilippo,’ some of the graphical elements in the interactive content are only a pixel wide; with most of it being displayed in the common central blend region, meaning that the setup has to be 100% perfect at all times’.

The key moment in the exhibition journey is the area entitled “The Great Patriotic War and the Holocaust’. For obvious reasons it is also the most difficult area to engage with. It contains various exhibition elements that include, photographic, audio, original artifacts and archival materials, set in front of a massive 26m x 4m curved projection surface, served by seven 3-Chip WUXGA projectors. Once again the warping and blending is handled by a Brainsalt system, also fitted with auto alignment. The highly customised, perforated screen surface conceals multi-channel audio and four films are delivered in looped succession. The content is testimony to what budget and experienced filmmaking can deliver, with astounding panoramic imagery, derived from both moving and still archival footage, mostly all rescanned dozens of times to increase resolution and then masterfully stitched together to create the super-wide format of the 12000 pixel-wide content. “This is a complete contradiction between fascination at the sheer scale and quality of the production and the absolute horror of the content and reality of war’, says Olivier, “its one of those pieces that you can watch a hundred times during setup and then cry your eyes out when you finally sit down and allow yourself to focus’.

The technology

Needless to say, the quantities of equipment required to deliver a system of this nature are huge. Of bigger concern are the logistics involved in getting such a diverse range of equipment into Russia. The same applied to much of the museum furniture and exhibition equipment which could get stuck for weeks at a time at the border crossings, causing knock-on effects for for AV installation, given the high level of integration of equipment into set-works. “What didn’t change, however, was the opening date, which constantly loomed on the horizon as the days passed waiting for critical items,’ recalls Sanfilippo. “It’s a testimony to the organisation and experience of the Kraftwerk team and the tenacity of the SA boys, that we completed on time, against many odds. Moscow is not the easiest place to work, and without support structures such as the translators, we would have been pretty stuck in some instances’.

So how does a system of this size and complexity fit together? At the heart of it all is the content delivery, all based on multichannel Brainsalt Media linear video servers and interactive servers, 73 in all. Delivery of signal to the 150 odd displays was over structured cabling, using mostly Atlona HD Base-T transceivers. The displays are a combination of LCD, Touch LCD and Projectors. Projectors consist largely of Panasonic units with a few Projection Design units for specific tasks. LCD’s are primarily Samsung with ELO for the touch derivatives.

All audio is processed by QSC Audio DSPs, with QSC amplification feeding a wide range of loudspeaker products across more than 160 channels. These are mostly QSC, but also include speaker products from Solid Drive, K-Array, Brown Innovations, JBL and Renkus-Heinz. Once again the emphasis is on balancing invisibility and performance.

Controlling all of the above is a Crestron backbone with a master AV2 processor coupled to seven slave processors throughout equipment clusters. The system covers all aspects of daily scheduling and maintenance reporting as well as the control core linking all interactive elements, tactile inputs and linear playback. The museum’s technical staff interface via a 46′ X-Panel display providing high resolution site layouts for ease of access.

The visit ends with a dedicated space called the Tolerance Centre. This sit-down experience employs 60 iPads in custom housings to capture visitor responses to a series of film-based scenarios that challenge the audience on issues around tolerance and acceptance. The films are played out on a 4×4 seamless videowall that also displays the outcomes of the activity.

Alex Sanfilippo sums it up, “Digital Fabric are proud to have worked on a project of this nature, its scale and complexity make it without doubt one of the most rewarding for many reasons. To work with a world-class team that can design and construct something as significant as this does not happen often, this is not just about a cool job to feature in our portfolio, what we take away from a project like this influences the way that we look at all aspects of our business.

Technical suppliers

Digital Fabric is a South African market leader in the design and integration of systems for the museum and visitor attraction markets. With more than 30 years of combined AV experience, Gavin Olivier and Alex Sanfilippo have managed to stay at the cutting edge of technology, specializing in bespoke development and award winning interactive experiences. The ability to deal with high levels of detail allows Digital Fabric to deliver on projects large and small, both locally and abroad.

KRAFTWERK Living Technologies is one of the leading companies in the field of professional audio-visual system integration. The Austrian based specialists combine and synchronise high-quality systems to provide tailor-made overall solutions for the global market. For more than 20 years KRAFTWERK has been engaged in the technical conception and development of AV solutions that find application in many different areas – from the entertainment industry to the automotive industry. Focused on providing highest quality and innovation, KRAFTWERK has become a trusted partner for turnkey AV projects. The service range includes technical design, engineering, implementation and maintenance. KRAFTWERK has executed numerous projects all over the world and has defined the standards for state-of-the-art system integration since its founding in 1992.