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Oklahoma Museum Reopens with Augmented Reality Experience

Three months after it closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the downtown museum reopened to the public Wednesday with a new parking garage, two new exhibits and a trailblazing new augmented reality experience.

by Brandy McDonnell, The Oklahoman / June 12, 2020
credit: Shutterstock/Amy Johansson

(TNS) — It's not unusual to find visitors waiting for the doors to be unlocked when the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum opens in the morning.

But Executive Director Kari Watkins was unusually happy to find early birds waiting Wednesday morning at the downtown landmark.

"It was so great to see visitors. ... The first two that came in were a family from Texas and a family from Nebraska, both who had young kids. So, they're teaching the story to the next generation," she said.

"I think we're very proud of how we've done it. We weren't the first reopen and I don't think we're the last, but we kind of did it in a way that we could do it and assure ... as much safety as you can."

Three months after it closed in response to the coronvirus pandemic, the downtown museum reopened to the public Wednesday with a new parking garage, two new exhibits and a trailblazing new augmented reality experience.

"It's groundbreaking. We are doing stuff that no one else is doing with augmented technology, and we really hope it resonates with people," Chief Technology Officer Dustin Potter said of the latter.

Unfortunate timing

The three-month closure was the longest in the museum's history.

"We closed one other time for a water leak. I think it was 20 days or so ... but we've never been closed for (more than) 30 days. Hope we never are again," Watkins said.

"We didn't have any more obstacles than anyone else did, but it was a big year and our timing was messed up by COVID. But we tried to make the very best of it. We wanted to make sure that the numbers got flattened before we reopened because we bring in so many people from outside Oklahoma."

The 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing was April 19, but instead of welcoming crowds of people to pay their respects, the memorial was closed. A prerecorded remembrance ceremony aired online and on local television.

"Putting the barricades around the outdoor site the week of April 19 was very hard to do. But we felt like we had to do it to protect people," Watkins said, adding that the outdoor memorial reopened about a month ago.

"That first month of COVID when everybody else went home ... we were still in small groups coming to work, working on the production for April 19 with our partners at Ackerman (McQueen). ... The positive of COVID is that ceremony probably was seen by 10 times as many people because people were stuck at home and appreciated the hourlong broadcast that told the story. It kind of became a history lesson."

Financial impact

The Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation also launched this year a 25th anniversary "Looking Back Thinking Forward" capital campaign with a $14 million goal.

"Oklahomans and people from around the country that have been very generous, and we're a little over halfway on that campaign. But again, we lost 90 days like everybody else did," Watkins said. "It's a huge financial impact."

The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum receives no annual funds from federal, state or local governments. Income from admissions operates the day-to-day budget, she said.

"We probably lost a million dollars easily in those 90 days," she said. "Normally, we have 1,200 to 1,500 people a day in the summer. At max, we'll do 400 today, and that's all income we're not getting, even through the rest ... of the summer because we can't be at full occupancy. So, that's a hit we keep taking even though we're open because we just can't take everyone and keep our 6 feet apart social distancing. ... So, we'll be at a loss at the end of the year, but that's why we have an endowment and why we try to be lean and mean and have a small staff."

The institution announced Tuesday that it had received a personal $1 million donation from Paycom founder and CEO Chad Richison to help the museum reopen and to grow its endowment.

"Chad's gift and many others have helped sustain this place ... and we're just thrilled with the progress we got to make during the 90 days that we were closed," she said.

Coronavirus precautions

After three days of private test runs earlier this week, the museum reopened to the public Wednesday at 25% capacity. Admission is granted in timed intervals to limit the number of visitors in the building at a time, and people are encouraged to go online and reserve their spot in advance to guarantee entry.

Visitors are required to wear masks inside the museum. Social distancing markers, increased cleaning measures and automated lights and restroom facilities also have been implemented.

"One of the most popular things we've done is when you come in, we give you a little stylus so you can still engage in all of the interactives and those stories with the stylus. You can use it on the elevators. You don't have to touch things, and I think people appreciate it," Watkins said.

"For my kids and younger kids, that's how they learn the story is by touching a screen. ... We worked too hard five years ago to get that layer added to the museum that I wasn't just going to turn it off. So for us, it was worth giving up a few cents on a stylus."

Added amenities

With the reopening, the museum is finally getting to offer some new amenities that were planned for April and the 25th anniversary celebration, including one aimed at young guests.

That includes a new parking facility across the street at NW Sixth Street and N Harvey Avenue, where visitors can park for free with paid admission.

"As downtown has grown and (there's) more housing and more people coming downtown, parking's become a premium," Watkins said. "So, it's spectacular."

Once inside, visitors will get to tour two new exhibits: One when they enter the museum and one when they leave.

In the lobby, the new 25th anniversary exhibit chronicles how the memorial and the community have progressed together over the last quarter-century. Potter said it incorporates photographs and an array of artifacts, from autographed cowboy boots donated by Charles Barkley to the groundbreaking shovel used by Al Gore.

"It's pretty uplifting. It's all about looking back and thinking forward," Potter said.

As they leave the museum, Watkins said visitors will go through a new exhibit that will encourage them to remember and live out the tenets of the "Oklahoma Standard."

"When we were designing that over the last year, I don't think we could have imagined the world in which we opened. There were protesters outside the federal courthouse (Wednesday) morning when we opened, and we were part of the vandalism that took place here a couple of weeks ago," she said. 

"At the same time, what happened here 25 years ago can still teach lessons today. So, when we say 'rise up to honor,' 'step up to be kind' and 'stand up to serve,' those are things we can all do and are as relevant today in the environment we live in as they were on April 19, 1995."

Augmented reality

But technology has changed dramatically in the past quarter-century, and Potter said the museum also has been working for the past year on its new "Stronger Together" Augmented Reality Experience. The museum overhauled its Android and Apple mobile app to add the AR experience, which some people might recognize from games like Pokemon Go.

"Looking through their phone, they will see a person who represents a family member, a survivor, a first-responder, an investigator, a journalist and a volunteer ... and they'll follow their stories throughout the museum," he said.

"They're a combination of stories from the representatives of those constituent groups ... and we're allowing a person to hear directly from a survivor right next to them or from a family member."

The AR experience incorporates 3-D renders, polls, video and more, all with the goal of making the story of the bombing more personal.

"As far as I'm aware, no museum in the world is using augmented reality like this. A lot of them are making it where you'll hover over an artifact and you'll get some ancillary details about it. In this, we're actually changing the space that the visitor is in. ... You'll be able to see the Survivor Tree and stand under it inside the museum. You'll be able to see the Murrah building before it was bombed, and you'll be able move around it in the gallery space," he said.

"It is for everyone, but we targeted a younger group of people so that the experience mattered a little more to them ... We see a lot of people go through with their phones, so why not put that content in front of them."

By Wednesday morning, he said his colleagues had already spotted a grandmother and her two grandchildren using the AR experience together.

"Seeing people in the museum again: glorious, especially multi-generations learning together. That's what it's all about," he said.

©2020 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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