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Window on the world

Uplighting a giraffe doesn’t crop up that often in a lighting design brief, but that was probably one of the lesser challenges in DHA’s ambitious project to light the new National Museum of Scotland. Jill Entwistle reports from Edinburgh

A £47 million refurbishment of what was the Royal Museum has unpeeled less felicitous later additions to reveal the grandeur of the original Victorian structure, while linking it with the adjacent 1990s National Museum to create the new National Museum of Scotland, a cohesive new series of spaces for the 21st century.

The main architectural intervention was the digging-out of the basement, previously small rooms and storage, to provide a new arrivals hall with step-free access from the street. The project won Gareth Hoskins Architects the prestigious RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award last year.

Simple and elegant

“The size of the project was the biggest challenge, as it all opened in one phase and at the same time,” says David Robertson, of lighting design consultant DHA. “They took down walls that had been put up in the 1960s. The view from gallery to gallery was very important to the redesign and the spaces are now very impressive. It was crucial that we had a simple and elegant lighting solution that would work for different objects and graphics in all those spaces. There was a huge variation in objects, everything from a Ski-Doo snowmobile to a giraffe.”

The brief, at least where National Museums Scotland director Dr Gordon Rintoul was concerned, was straightforward. “The galleries previously had what Dr Rintoul described as ‘a dog’s breakfast’ of light fittings”, says Robertson. “Galleries had been developed separately and, as a result, different colours and styles of lighting obscured the architectural beauty of the spaces. We wanted to bring a coherent solution that was easy to maintain – another bugbear for the director – and which linked, rather than isolated, the galleries.”

“The galleries previously had what Dr Rintoul described as ‘a dog’s breakfast’ of light fittings,” David Robertson, DHA Design

One of the cornerstones of the lighting strategy was to have a single, identical and discreet track fitting throughout, relying on a range of accessories to vary the lit effect. It was also determined that halogen lamps – QT12 IRCs – would be used, rather than LEDs, while taking measures to mitigate the difference in energy use this might imply. Not only did Robertson feel that LEDs were not adequate for some of the throws required by the spaces, but at a maximum £105 for each lamp fitting and its accessories, neither was the budget. “[We had to consider] not just punch, but also price,” says Robertson.

Fluorescent case lighting in the Natural World galleries, daylight sensors, separate cleaning lighting and a Dynalite control system with a time switch all reduced the energy tally but, most significantly, where the museum previously had 100W lamps, they are now 50W.

“Most people dealing with a 6m-plus throw would go for the highest wattage possible, but from experience I felt we could do it with something lower, and 50W has proved fine,” says Robertson.

Challenge at hand

The challenge was also to come up with judicious lighting, for example in the soaring Natural World galleries, where animal exhibits are dramatically suspended in space. Here the emphasis was on shadow and drama, using primarily narrow-beam spots with louvres.

“It was a three-sided perimeter gallery and so not especially difficult, though the fittings had to be placed quite carefully to avoid glare and also to avoid lighting the three massive projection screens,” says Robertson. “We decided not to use too many lights in that space. We added highlights where objects could take more, and used shadow play to create a more dynamic and exciting space. Not everything was lit from the bottom and not everything was lit from the top. It was a ‘less is more’ solution. If there had been more lighting, the drama would have been lost.”

To achieve the level of precision necessary, DHA spent 50 man days on site, supervising – and sometimes personally installing – every single one of the 1,700 fittings. Not surprisingly, after all that effort, fittings are lockable.

While many track fittings have 180-degree movement and can therefore only point downwards, some were modified to allow light above, achieving a softer band of light running round the walls. Softening lenses were also used to make spaces feel brighter than their 50 lux.

“We made this modification specifically for the animal gallery, because we wanted to light most of it from below,” says Robertson. “We also introduced a light box graphic – in black to minimise the amount of light coming up – into all the plinths, so that the light bounced out of the back and off the cream-coloured plinths onto the underside of the animals. There was no other way of doing it other than recessing an uplight or something – and we felt that didn’t make sense under a giraffe,” he adds, enigmatically. “It was the most sensitive way we could do it, rather than the most showy.”

Through the window

The museum’s Grand Gallery features what is considered Britain’s largest showcase, the Window on the World display, which ascends 16m, appearing to rise through all the floors. This is simply lit using Encapsulite fluorescent lamps within cases. Clipped to the rear of the structure within five-sided light boxes, they make the whole installation luminescent and are purposely unshielded at the top to cast a soft glow onto the ceiling.

Although the space is used for events, special lighting will be hired for the occasion to preserve the architectural integrity. The only permanent concession to events are the cylinder fittings, with colour-changing LED uplight and 20W metal halide downlight, discreetly mounted on the column at first balustrade level, and LED spots to uplight the ceiling ribs.

Directly below the Grand Gallery is the newly-created entrance space in the basement, accounting for the bulk of the architectural work. With the textured brickwork, vaulted ceiling and arches, the crypt-like arrivals hall presented an edgy lighting canvas. “A lot of the lighting budget went into rendering that space well,” says Robertson.

Only energy-efficient sources are used, with wall-mounted fluorescent up- and downlighting, recessed fluorescent fittings uplighting the walls, spine-mounted fluorescent uplights, and metal halide uplights, also spine-mounted, to light the cross-vaults. The colour temperature is 3,000K. “We wanted to make the most of the patina of the brickwork,” says Robertson.

“It was about understanding the beauty of the vaulted ceiling, integrating recessed and discreet fluorescent lighting to softly wash the walls, and using floor-recessed fittings ‘backwards’ to light the tops of arches without hot spots at kicker level. It’s a really beautiful space.”

At a glance

DHA has built up a reputation as one of the UK’s foremost lighting design consultancies for museums and galleries. Here, DHA Design’s DavidRobertson introduces three of the firm’s latest high-profile installations

HAJJ: Journey to the heart of Islam - British Museum

Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam

Journey to the heart of Islam

“Having worked on four previous British Museum Round Reading Room shows, we had good experience of the different moods created, and wanted to make the lighting appropriate to each one. Whereas The Book of the Dead – the guide to the Egyptian afterlife – was sepulchral, and followed a labyrinthine route of darkness into light, the Hajj itself is a predominantly daylit experience. We wanted the lighting to feel bright and soft, despite the limited light levels.

“There is a sensitivity to this subject that we felt a clean and clear lighting approach would complement. I would feel, if someone commented on the lighting being good, that I’d not done my job properly; I want it to be invisible and for people to come away moved by the exhibition.”

Grayson Perry: The tomb of the unknown craftsman - British Museum


The tomb of the unknown craftsman

“Working with Grayson was a great experience and privilege – I could have done with a notebook to record the wonderful bons mots and epigrams of his conversation – and he’s very professional and open to design input. The exhibition was a first for the British Museum: an artist curating a collection of disparate objects alongside around 30 of his own works. The exhibition was off

the daylit Great Court, so we started with brighter, softer lighting and white walls, to assist adaptation, and finished with dramatic lighting and dark walls, as the journey into his mind unravelled. The final highlight was a huge cast iron ship model by Grayson, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This was uplit with plinth- mounted fibres for atmosphere, supplemented with shafts of light from above.”

David Hockney: A bigger picture - Royal Academy


A bigger picture

“These bold and exciting landscapes on huge canvases dominated the space and the decision to include daylight suited both the subject and the grandeur of the galleries. It was filtered to obscure direct sunlight, but we had to be especially careful with the few paper works, including, for one lender, looking at cumulative lux hours and lighting accordingly.

“David was, again, a pleasure to work with and was very interested in the lighting solutions, without ever interfering, and was delighted when, as he said, we made his colours come alive. He made us feel like part of the team.”

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