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  • Writer's pictureLutzR2

Portfolio: Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Part 2

Exhibits Department - Creative Coordinator 1998 - 2007

museum. fossil, preparation, lab,

One day in 1996, I was literally making some fake rocks for one of the wildlife dioramas when it occurred to me that this particular skill may not carry over into the next century. I then decided to return to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, enrolling in the Computer Animation/Multimedia program, which I attended in the evenings and weekends for the next two years. I was still working full time in the Exhibits Department, specifically in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians as mentioned in a previous post. I can also recall a number of the senior staff constantly teasing me about learning “all that computer stuff” while I was in school. It was often pointed out that Carnegie had been producing displays in the same way for nearly a century, and that my new skills wouldn’t apply. Little did any of us expect for things to suddenly change in a very radical way in 1998. 

As part of a class project, I put together a video commercial with help from the Lab Manager of the fossil preparation lab, Norman Wuerthele (seen in the first photo at the top of the page). Note all the makeshift lighting I had to cobble together and the dark windows because this was well after hours. I wish I could share the video we made, but alas many of the clips I created during this time are trapped on outdated media. The concept was of him finding fossils that spelled out "Carnegie."

From the “Stone Age” to the “Space Age” Overnight

Change came to the museum of natural history very quickly in the late 90’s. We suddenly had a new Director. Former astronaut and NASA scientist Dr. Jerome "Jay" Apt III became our new boss and suddenly our Exhibits Department was under pressure to modernize its production techniques. By coincidence I happened to be close to finishing two years of my AIP computer aided design training. One of his first actions was laying off a number of our long-time creative staff, for which I inadvertently took some blame, Really, it had been only by chance that I had added new tech skills that he thought we needed. It was a tough transition, but in the end I found myself with a new role, setting up a “modern” means of producing graphics, educational films,  computer interactives, and other innovative displays. It was simply a matter of luck that I had reeducated myself in advance of this new era.

Jerome "Jay" Apt III
Dr Jerome "Jay" Apt III

One of the first computer programs I learned was an early version of Adobe Illustrator. I made these window graphics (above) by creating MANY of layered shapes. Back then you had to manipulate tiny spline points to create curves. Oh my, what a tedious process that was! These images were on display on the first floor of the museum for many years.

The World’s First Autonomous Robotic Tour Guide

One of the more interesting projects I was involved with was the creation of an autonomous robotic tour guide. Our museum partnered with the robotic/computer science department of Carnegie Mellon University in developing this innovative escort. Basically it was a machine that could navigate through the old Dinosaur Hall where it would stop at specific locations and play videos related to the specimens in front of it. This robotic guide had the ability to weave through crowds and dock/undock itself from its wall charging station as needed. It was a very fast paced project, resulting in many sleepless nights of working on not only the look, but the content of the videos. Naturally it was temperamental and buggy at times, needing substantial attention from the CMU techs to get it running properly. However, this little wonder was one of the world’s first self-operating museum docents and helped launch a small robotic industry.

This is the only video clip that I happen to still have that I can share. The short educational films that I produced during this period of my career were all stored on media that I can no longer access. In order to make these films I had to do so using stock footage, in house graphics, and support from outside vendors who donated studio time. For instance the voice of this particular robot was that of a local radio host and we used the station’s sound stage to record everything. The piece was then put together using Adobe Premier for the roughcuts, and After Effects for the final version.

*At this point I want to point out that I wish I could share samples of the many educational videos that I produced during this period. All were made using digital means and then stored on large portable Jazz Drives. While I still have backups in my personal storage I can no longer access this old media with modern computers. The drives use an old SATA pin connection which are no longer installed on today’s machines. Mostly, the videos were of scientists discussing their fields of expertise.*

Old Dinosaur Hall Sound & Light Shows

Before the complete overhaul of the museum's Dinosaur Hall, it was felt that the exhibit needed to be more “entertaining.” It was decided that we needed to produce audio & light shows to bring the fossils “to life.” We partnered with the drama department of Carnegie Mellon University who helped design and install a computer aided lighting system that synced with an audio player. The lights had a variety of gobos (small stenciled, circular discs) and colored films that would change as programmed. We could mimic lighting, and focus on various specimens and parts of the hall as programmed.

I produced the audio by working with our education and science departments to craft entertaining audio scripts that were akin to old school radio plays. These sound bites were then carefully synced up with a variety of lighting effects which would play at pre-programmed times on certain days. The phenomenal display increased our attendance actually increased with audiences clapping loudly at the end of these shows.

An interesting phenomenon resulted from these audio shows after installing the large subwoofer under the t-rex. The art museum reported that hanging art pieces were vibrating on the walls and becoming crooked. To resolve this strange occurrence, I hired a sound engineer to come measure the actual length of the base sound wave. By taking a scientific approach to the problem, we were able to literally shorten the sound waves so that they weren't hitting the far wall at full force. The power of math and science worked and the artwork no longer bounced itself out of plumb!

Computer Dispays & Interactives

I also oversaw and installed a number of computer aided displays, interactives, and research aides. Nearly everything that was put on display was something experimental and fraught with hurdles that required innovative solutions as this sort of exhibitry was all still very new. While some displays would be considered quite dull by today's standards, it seemed the public really enjoyed these early interactive exhibits as they received a lot of use. Naturally they also required a good deal of troubleshooting at times. Further, it seemed some folks were determined to “hack” into the systems.

Graphics Design & Production

The most rewarding aspect of this period of my career was to compose a cohort of capable staff and talented pool of freelance artists. Together we produced a wide variety of graphics for use in displays, videos, and online. I cannot underscore how amazing it was to work with such talented artists and to share concepts and ideas.

It was also during this period that I reconnected with my love of photography. Due to my work with Dr. Apt I often received early digital photography tech to “play” with. This led to my eventually picking up an early model digital SLR camera. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with using it, which eventually led me to wanting to pursue photography as the next chapter in my career. I then spent two years training under photojournalists, with the intent of going to Iraq to become an AP photographer. 

In early 2006, I suddenly had a life changing event that made me face mortality. My ambitions changed radically and I decided that having a family was more important. To that end I ran off, got married, and then left my career behind in order to become a stay-at-home parent. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, and with my time I also was able to hone my skills as a photographer. In addition to perfecting my craft I ran a small commercial photography business.

A historical stereograph - 100 years apart:

These two photos were taken nearly 100 years apart. To the left is an early photo of a guard soon after Dinosaur Hall opened. To the right is a photo I took of the last guards to watch the hall before being completely taken down and replaced.

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