Alex Van Ness, Supervisor of Exhibit Technology, National Air and Space Museum, explains the latest technology upgrades his museum is investing in.

Nov 01 2022

Digital Signage Guides Travelers and Tourists to the Right Location

Presidential museums, the Smithsonian and TSA locations in airports all rely on electronic signs to get their messages across.

Visitors entering the partially reopened National Air and Space Museum will be greeted by new high-resolution digital signs to guide them to the refurbished exhibits. They will also find signature artifacts augmented by technology designed to better show off the museum’s collection.

The popular Washington, D.C.-based museum, in the midst of a seven-year, $1 billion face-lift, completed the first phase of its modernization effort in early October.

Eight new and redesigned galleries feature recent acquisitions, including a full-sized X-wing starfighter used in the final Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and new immersive, interactive experiences powered by digital signage.

“Digital signs are extremely valuable,” says Alex Van Ness, the museum’s supervisor of exhibit technology. “There’s so much to see when you come into a large museum space, and it’s overwhelming.

“With digital signage, we can channel people to the information desk and direct them to certain galleries and amenities, like theaters, restaurants and restrooms,” he adds.

In the galleries, large video walls play historical footage or display aviation and space-related imagery. Small touch-screen displays show video or audio clips. The museum also uses laser projectors to create a 360-degree immersive experience where visitors can feel like they are walking in other worlds.

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“You literally feel like you are on the surface of another planet. It’s extremely high resolution,” Van Ness says.

Federal agencies are increasingly deploying digital signage to inform and engage the public, but also for internal communications, says Brian Gorg, executive director of the Digital Signage Federation.

The use case for digital signs depends on each agency’s mission. The Transportation Security Administration, for example, uses digital signs at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas to provide instructions at security checkpoints, enabling a faster and smoother screening process.

Federal government operations or command centers — such as the Department of Defense’s emergency operations centers, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center and NASA’s Johnson Space Center Mission Control Center — also use digital monitors to display real-time information, which assists with decision-making.

Agencies also use digital signage for workforce engagement, much like the private sector does, Gorg says.

“It’s being used in the same way as corporate communications,” he says. “There may be an open enrollment for benefits that promote healthy lifestyles or messaging to the workforce that reinforces things such as COVID-19 compliance.”

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How the National Air and Space Museum Is Transforming

The National Air and Space Museum is redesigning its 23 D.C.-based exhibits and presentation spaces (it has a second site nearby in northern Virginia) and plans to complete the project in 2025.  

Once done, the museum on the National Mall will feature about 40 digital signs for general information and nearly 500 digital displays in exhibits. About half have already been installed, Van Ness says.

To bolster performance and meet high-bandwidth needs, the museum first installed fiber and new Cisco networking switches throughout the building. The staff also built a new server room with high-end Dell servers and storage.

Combined, the new technology infrastructure enables the museum to quickly deliver high-quality, uncompressed video and audio to digital displays throughout the museum, he says.

Nearly all the displays have 4K resolution; museum staff members reserve regular HD screens for older photos that aren’t as sharp and won’t benefit from the higher-end displays. “We make sure visitors get the best possible experience,” Van Ness says.

The museum uses multiple hardware and software vendors for its digital signage needs, including Elo, which makes touch-screen displays; Carousel Digital Signage software for creating and delivering content to digital signs; and Panasonic laser projectors with short throw lenses for a fully immersive experience, Van Ness says.

The museum also deploys Planar’s tiled LED video walls and Christie’s custom LED displays, media servers and software for other large, multi-display, high-resolution needs, he says.

Alex Van Ness
Digital signs are extremely valuable. There’s so much to see when you come into a large museum space, and it’s overwhelming.”

Alex Van Ness Supervisor of Exhibit Technology, National Air and Space Museum

The museum purchases medical or military-grade displays or outdoor displays when possible because they last longer than commercial displays or professional equipment sold for personal use, Van Ness says.

“They are more expensive, but they are more robust. It pays off because we get many years beyond the manufacturer’s mean time between failure,” he adds.

New informational signs include a 50-by-2-foot outdoor LED sign that alerts visitors to key information, such as show times for the planetarium and other theaters, and lists items that are not allowed inside.

55-inch informational signs “grab people’s attention. They can set up their day from what they’re seeing on the signage and decide where to go next,” Van Ness says.

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Inside the exhibits, the digital displays come in all shapes and sizes and are integral to the museum’s overall storytelling approach, Van Ness says. They show video, audio and provide hands-on, interactive experiences for people of all ages to learn about early and modern-day aviation and space exploration.

In one new, immersive experience in the early flight gallery, the museum projects historical photographs from the early 1900s. 

“We provide background imagery from the early 20th century, such as what people wear,” he says. “It makes you feel like you are there and part of it instead of just reading text on a wall or seeing pictures next to an artifact.”

In the future, the museum will add touch-screen tables so people can assemble a Saturn V rocket or build modules for the International Space Station, he says.

One important benefit of digital signage is the ability to update messaging or content in real time, Van Ness says. When new space discoveries occur, museum staff can update the content at exhibits easily and quickly. They can also alert people to special events or if a show sells out.

“We can get that information out quickly so people aren’t disappointed. They know there are no more tickets,” Van Ness says.

How the TSA Is Improving Security Checkpoints

In Las Vegas, the TSA has implemented digital signs at two security checkpoints at Harry Reid International Airport. They display current wait times and provide passengers with instructions on how to navigate the security line at different points of the screening process.

“Digital signage is eye-catching and is often the first thing passengers see as they enter the checkpoint,” says Christina Peach, acting director of TSA’s Innovation Task Force. 

The TSA has installed seven column-shaped digital signs: four at TSA’s Innovation Checkpoint, where it pilots new technology, and three at the Terminal 3 checkpoint.

As passengers traverse the line, the digital signs — more than 7 feet tall and about 2 feet wide — display the current wait time and instruct them to take out boarding passes and photo IDs. The signs also tell those in line what items must be taken out of their bags for inspection.

Once travel documents are checked, digital signage tells passengers to proceed to an open station and that they will be subject to additional screening. After that, another sign tells them to drop empty bins onto a conveyor belt and proceed to open benches or their departure gates.

Anecdotally, passengers have told the TSA that security lines move faster because of the digital signage, Peach says.

The displays provide “elegant, streamlined, visual communication,” she says.


The number of digital signs the National Air and Space Museum will deploy when it completes its $1 billion renovation in 2025

Source: National Air and Space Museum

A Look at How Museums are Enhancing the Experience

Other federal museums are taking advantage of digital signs. In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum has invested in new digital signs this year, including a large, high-resolution, outdoor LED screen at the front of the facility and several new indoor displays.

The new digital signs give the 42-year-old museum a more modern look, says Joshua Dawson, the museum’s facility manager.

“Many federal facilities are older, and outdated fixtures and finishes are not uncommon. A digital sign or three can provide a quick, modern look to any lobby or public-facing area,” he says.

The Ford Presidential Museum, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, is installing the new street-facing, 53-by-111-inch digital sign at the front of the facility to promote the museum at a busy, four-way intersection.

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The museum will use its vendor’s proprietary software to post content, including graphics, animations and photos of President Ford and his family. During the pandemic, its previous external digital sign was useful in informing the public whether the museum was open or closed, Dawson says.

Inside, the museum uses five digital displays ranging in size from 13 inches to 43 inches. Staff members manually upload information, including photo slideshows.

“Each sign provides visitors with information on current and forthcoming exhibits, education programs, events, hours of operation and similar information,” Dawson says.

The museum will continue to add more digital displays throughout its 15,000-square-foot permanent exhibit space in the years to come, he says.

“Digital signs are the future. People enjoy seeing them,” Dawson says. “They’re easy to install, and they’re even easier to maintain. As the technology advances, the costs decrease, providing a realistic ROI compared with displays from10 years ago.”

Photography by Landsman

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