High Definition at the Hermitage Rooms
Saturday, 3 March 2001
A magnificent exhibition of Treasures of Catherine the Great has been staged to inaugurate the new Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has loaned more than 500 works of art and paintings, which will be on view to the public until 23rd September 2001.

The décor of the Hermitage Rooms recreates, in miniature, the imperial splendour of the Winter Palace and its various wings which now make up The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This imperial shell will provide the backdrop for rotating exhibitions from the collections of the Museum in St. Petersburg and other Hermitage-related activities, providing London with a window on Russian art and history.

Although the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House have been designed to be a palatial backdrop for important works of art, they also feature the latest in high technology display. The technology is discreet: it is used to enhance the visit in a subtle way and most visitors will be unaware that the latest web technology, high definition video, video conferencing technology, flat screen displays, MPEG compression and MP3 audio are all being used.

Electrosonic was appointed to design and build the audio-visual system for the Hermitage Rooms, and the aim throughout was to ensure that the hardware system was completely unobtrusive. The audio visual elements include a film of the interior of the Hermitage, produced by Mosaic Films and presented through a high definition video projection system. There is also a live image of the exterior of the Hermitage, presented on a 40 inch plasma display panel, supported by BSkyB, eight touchscreen interactive displays giving access to the Hermitage website, presented on 18" high resolution (SXGA) LCD touchscreeens, and an audio guidance system based on MP3 technology (supplied under a separate contract by Antenna Audio).

The challenge for Mosaic Films was to ensure that the quality of the original film could be maintained when shown to an exhibition audience, with a requirement that the show system be suitable for continuous running. A Digital Projection 5000GV DLP projector was selected for projecting the film on to its 2.2m wide screen. The projector is only half the story. The film itself is stored on a high definition video server as an MPEG-2 file. The Hermitage Rooms exhibition is the first UK installation of Electrosonic’s HD server (many are already installed in the USA). This device has been specially developed to meet the needs of permanent exhibitions and continuous running shows.

As for access to the Hermitage website, the plan was to integrate the facility into the furniture so that the gallery did not resemble a computer showroom. Jasper Jacob Associates, the exhibition designer, designed furniture to accommodate the display screens but not the associated computers. It is already practice for museums and exhibitions to separate computers from their displays and input devices. Electrosonic has developed techniques that allow the computer to be centrally rack-mounted, and the display and input devices (in this case touchscreen monitors and a full keyboard/mouse complement) to be sited up to 300m away. The connection between the two is done using low cost CAT-5 cable, already standard in the office environment.

It is expected that the majority of users will home in on a limited subset of the information held on the website; so this information is held locally. Each computer holds high quality images and details of the Hermitage collections in St. Petersburg, carried on hard disk, but loaded from CD-ROM. However, there is still a need to have direct access to the St. Petersburg site, and the only practical way of achieving this for multiple users is through a direct link. Fortunately, there was another reason why such a link should be available. The Netvista computers are linked to the proxy server by 100Mb Ethernet. The server has IBM WebSphere software installed, p

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