Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, holds a very special place in the annals of U.S. history. It is the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence as well as the U.S. Constitution, and was home to significant figures such as Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, Revolutionary War icon Betsy Ross, author Louisa May Alcott, Civil War General George B. McClellan and comedian/actor Bill Cosby. So when you’re entrusted with preserving all of that important history for the benefit of citizens of the present, you don’t take that mission lightly.
Such is the world of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Founded in 1824 and located at 1300 Locust Street in a building designed by native son architect Addison Hutton, HSP is home to some 600,000 printed items and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items. These items encompass more than 350 years of American history, dating from the city’s 17th-century origins to today. Some of its most famous pieces include a handwritten first draft of the U.S. Constitution, the earliest surviving American photograph, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, and a document with the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” handwritten and signed by author Francis Scott Key—one of only three known to exist.
Because of the fragile nature of the majority of these national treasures, most of the collection is stored in dark, climate-controlled rooms, hidden from public view.
Individual pieces are normally seen exclusively by HSP’s typical patrons, who tend to be researchers—genealogists, K-12 teachers, college/university researchers, and historical/heritage organizations. HSP also displays samples from its collection in four exhibit cases, but only for a very limited time to prevent damage.The Challenge
In 2012, HSP was preparing to embark on a $5.7 million building renovation project—its first in 20 years. The project had several components. One was to upgrade the security system to protect its invaluable collection. Another was to install compact shelving in three storage areas that would take HSP from bursting at the seams to having enough space to grow its collection for another 10 years without increasing its footprint. The third involved updating the public spaces, lobby area, and reference room.
“We wanted to enhance our visibility and make HSP a more welcoming space for visitors,” says Page Talbott, Interim President and CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “We have such a rich collection of documents and other artifacts, yet only a small segment of the population had seen it or was even aware of it. We wanted to draw more of the general public to HSP and help make history come alive for them. America is still such a young country relative to much of the world, and always seems to be looking to the future. Gaining a glimpse of the past creates a perspective that anchors us and binds us to all those who blazed the trails we’re now following.”
To gain a sense of how other historical societies, museums and places of interest approached engaging their visitors, several members of HSP embarked on a tour of various locations in the United States and Europe. They looked at the overall flow, ambience, and display presentations, noting what they liked and what they thought was effective. Among their discoveries was the idea of a video wall.
“The building committee could see a lot of possibilities in it,” Talbott says. “The motion, the bright colors, and the size would all help make the materials in our collection larger than life—figuratively as well as literally. The fact that we could show multiple pieces in the same space, or create a montage that told a more detailed story, would also be a huge benefit. Of course, video would certainly be more attractive to our younger visitors who have grown up looking at screens all their lives, helping them relate to our collection more readily than they might have just looking at the artifacts themselves.”
At first, the concept of a video wall was on the “nice to have” list. But as renovation plans progressed, HSP determined it was definitely something they wanted to make a part of the new public space. In fact, they wanted three.
HSP spoke with Lead Architect Peter Saylor as well as David Searles, both of the firm SaylorGregg Architects, about how to integrate the video walls into the public spaces. Once that was decided, Designer Stephen Bashore of Cloud Gehshan Associates (CGA) was brought in to design a stand that would incorporate two back-to-back video displays in a 3 x 3 configuration that fit aesthetically with the rest of the space. CGA also proposed designing a 2 x 2 video wall for donor recognition, which would be incorporated into the permanent donor wall. CGA created the screen layouts and standards that determine where content goes and how it will be presented.
All that was left was to determine which display screens to use. They had to have high reliability because they would be running for long periods of time, and visitors would miss seeing some of HSP’s most striking, historically significant pieces if the screens were blank. They also had to be bright with deep, rich colors and contrasts, since they’d be set in rooms with large, colonial-style windows. At the same time, they needed to be adjustable so that light levels could be controlled on the side nearest the documents. Most importantly, they had to be capable of showing off HSP’s collection in ways that gave visitors pause without interfering with their appreciation of the materials on the screen—or in the rooms around them.The Solution
CGA was looking into displays from several different manufacturers. But Joe McConahy, Regional Sales Manager, and Vincent DiStasio, Vice President at integrator Video Visions, recommended using NEC’s 46-inch X463UN direct LED-backlit LCD displays throughout. Video Visions has installed more than 200 NEC video walls throughout the United States, and prefers NEC products for their reliability and after-install warranty support.
The professional-grade X463UN, which is designed specifically for 24/7 use in video walls, offers improved brightness uniformity and reduced power consumption while using mercury-free components. It also has a mere 5.7 mm distance between the active screen areas of two neighboring displays, which was important to HSP.
“In doing the research we saw some video walls where the bezels could be seen very prominently,” says Talbott. “It was really distracting, and took a lot away from the material being presented. With the ultra-thin bezels of the NEC displays, you really don’t see them. The effect is when a visitor looks at a video wall showing the first map of the City of Philadelphia (which dates back to 1683), they see it as a single, larger-than-life document rather than puzzle pieces. That’s the effect we were going for.”
Two other factors in the selection of NEC displays were the lower power consumption and low heat output. HSP relies on donations from the community, which means budgets are always tight. Keeping power consumption down means the addition of the video walls will have a negligible impact on electricity costs.
The low heat output was important due to the design of the enclosures for the video walls. Custom Display Solutions (CDS) built them to CGA’s specifications, which meant the sides and botto
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