Inside the Williamsburg office of Two Rivers Multimedia Solutions, the tangle of connections between the staff's computers and various gangs of blinking storage drives hardly ever stops humming. Two glowing monitors stand on each desk, sucking data from this endless electronic stream - then spitting it back - as the four-person production team hammers thousands of raw video, audio and graphic art files into one of the most distinctive features of the new USS Monitor Center.
Interactive multimedia presentations crop up everywhere inside the $30 million addition to The Mariners' Museum, enabling visitors to travel back in time and to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean as they explore the story of the fabled Civil War ironclad. Faces, voices, even landscapes from both the distant and not-so-distant past emerge inside the darkened galleries as if conjured up by magic.
More videoBut Two Rivers co-owner Tim Ivy knows that the success of the interactive computer games, personal story stations and documentary feature created by his firm depends largely on a lot of hard work as well as an occasional nuzzle of encouragement from the office dog.
Then there's the importance of having 15 terabytes of server space in which to store an eye-numbing tide of data.
"It takes a long time to do something like this well because you have to be accurate," says Ivy, whose team started on the Monitor Center project in June 2005. "At the same time, you have to find ways to boil it all down without losing anything important."
Designed by New York-based DMCD with the help of Mariners' curator Anna Holloway and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston, the new exhibits represent an ambitious leap forward for the museum.
Defined as much by interactive multimedia experiences as by artifacts and theatrical environments, they're intended to remake the way in which visitors relate to the Mariners' galleries and - in the process - completely change their sense of what it's like to tour a history museum.
"We want to appeal to all sorts of visitors, not just older people who love ship models and reading but also younger tech-savvy, Web-savvy visitors who understand the language of computers," Holloway says. "We also wanted a new way to get some of the great things we have - the photographs, letters, documents and paintings - out of storage and into the galleries where they could really add something to the visitors' experience."
Two Rivers began its task by sifting through huge amounts of information, including photographs, letters and other documents from the enormous historical collections of the Mariners' and Monitor sanctuary as well as hundreds of hours of raw video footage from the Monitor underwater archaeological expeditions. Guided by the new exhibit's story lines, Ivy and co-owner M.K. Sizemore - assisted by graphic artist
Sara Belmont and writer Brent Holliday - also conducted additional research into the personalities and issues behind the Monitor as well as such broader themes as 19th-century warship design and naval warfare.
Two engrossing video games resulted, each translating such arcane themes as seamanship, firepower and seaworthiness into illuminating insights about the age of sail and the heavily armored, steam-powered innovation that the Monitor represented.
"I basically had to learn to sail a ship - or at least understand the mechanics," says Belmont, whose design-an-ironclad game requires each player to pass five stringent tests before getting the thumbs up from the Monty Pythonlike naval judges. "I've heard that some people have kept at it for 30 minutes or more in the tests."
The battery of eight personal story stations is designed to be just as compelling. Mixing period photographs, drawings and text with video performances by live actors, the giant flat-screen monitors provide living, breathing windows into the past, providing visitors with eye-witness guides to the dramatic personal and technological struggles that gave birth to both the Monitor and its monstrous adversary - the CSS Virginia.
"Hopefully, we're putting a human face on the themes explored in the galleries," Sizemore says, describing how the costumed actors seem to step out from the period pictures. "And we've got so many links filled with so much information - drawings, prints, photographs and illustrations - that you could spend 15 minutes exploring each one of these stations."
Richer still is the 20-minute interactive documentary that will enable visitors to relive the epic struggle of sanctuary archaeologists and Navy divers as they fought to recover the Monitor's turret from the stormy Atlantic in 2002. Narrated by "Law & Order" star Sam Waterston, the film uses an eye-popping screen-within-screen format to share not only freshly shot interviews but also key underwater and topside footage of some of the expedition's most hair-raising moments. It then asks visitors to make their own choices as they sweat through four of the weather-related and engineering calamities that almost doomed the mission.
"The Monitor always had this habit of waiting around for the 59th minute of the 11th hour before it would give you what you wanted," Ivy says. "And that's the story we're trying to show."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times