Canadian Museum of History, Canada

Pic: Gordon King

The Canadian Museum of History, located in Gatineau, Quebec, is the most visited museum in Canada, welcoming more than 1.2 million visitors each year.

With roots dating back to 1856, it’s one of the country’s oldest public institutions and a respected centre of museological excellence, sharing its expertise in history, archaeology, ethnology and cultural studies both within Canada and abroad.

With roughly 25,000sqm of exhibition space spread across four floors, the lighting design needed to be just right, in order to showcase the more than 200,000 artefacts on display.

To create a new lighting scheme for the museum, Montreal-based GSM Project – a group that specialises in the design and production of thematic installations and exhibitions – brought in Lightemotion, who through a combination of museum and architectural lighting, highlighted the work of architect Douglas Cardinal, while showcasing the museum’s history.

François Roupinian, President of Lightemotion, said that the goal for the new lighting design was: “to create a visual narrative with the lighting that would take the visitors throughout the different galleries that tells the story of Canada. The light should act as a magic wand, directing the viewer’s attention to key areas.”

To accomplish such a feat with a maximum spectrum of effects, the team at Lightemotion used more than 40 kinds of light fixtures. From theatrical floodlights to gobo projectors from ETC and miniature LED heads from the likes of iGuzzini and Sistemalux for subtly illuminating even the smallest details of the displays, all equipment used throughout the museum was carefully studied and adjusted in order to create a unique path of light.

Roupinian continued: “Flexibility is important for creating the right lighting.” As such, nothing was left to chance, with features including interchangeable lenses, zoom, anti-glare accessories, an integrated potentiometer to adjust the lighting level for conservation needs and ambience, and the option to add colour filters. Because of this, the lighting manufacturers for the project were chosen with particular care so that a wide range of choices would be available to ensure colour consistency.

Beyond the myriad of fixtures required, a project such as this comes with its own set of challenges; the first being the use of LED technology to recreate the warmth and subtlety of halogen, as LEDs are often too bright for the more subtle needs of a museum, as Roupinian explained: “The use of LED in a museum with thematic environments is not easy. Manufacturers want to produce very high lumen output luminaires but the choice and quality of optics is not always available.

“Also, in a museum we need control of the light and spills, and a good quality beam. We do not necessarily need a lot of light output, especially when you illuminate objects at 50 or 100 lux.

“The problem then comes though, that even when you have fixture equipment with integral dimmers, when the light is dimmed on an artefact, the LED lights become greyer.”

Roupinian and his team countered this though by working closely with different manufacturers, such as ETC, iGuzzini and Sistemalux, that could produce fixtures with good quality optics that would give less spill and residual lighting.

“Also, to counter the greyish colour that certain luminaires would produce through dimming, because of the lux level requirements, we used filters to correct the tonality of the light,” he explained.

Another important element to take into account was that certain fragile artefacts are sensitive to heat. When fine-tuning the lighting, Lightemotion worked closely with the museum’s conservation team to provide consistent and suitable lighting, carrying out tests that include thermal models to ensure optimal conservation conditions for the artefacts.

But one of the biggest challenges, Roupinian explained, was ensuring a consistent feel throughout the museum: “The one great challenge was keeping the same design aesthetic, quality and control of the light in a situation where we had different ceiling heights, different mounting possibilities and in some areas, we didn’t actually have any ceiling or lighting positions to hang the fixtures.”

This was evident in the case of the museum’s main, emblematic dome. Acting as a visual reference point throughout most of the museum pathway, the dome is an immense structure, but it’s shape made it impossible to install lighting. However, the team at Lightemotion employed a special approach: “We wanted to use this constraint as an advantage,” said Roupinian.

“That’s where we got the idea to use the dome to create light with indirect lighting. We wanted to make it the centrepiece of the museum’s ecosystem.”

“So we carefully tested many tonalities to illuminate the dome to create a great ambience, while using indirect lighting within the space,” he continued. “We also designed, with GSM, a mounting system for the exhibit installations where we could have lighting positioned within a minimal track system.”

Following these colour tests, the team was able to create their desired effect: a timeless tone for a comfortable atmosphere, where visitors feel as if they have stepped into the museum’s very own world. “Our goal was to illuminate this beautiful space architecturally, but at the same time design a lighting system that would serve the artistic and narrative purposes of the exhibit,” explained Roupinian.

“The light ultimately needs to tell a story. The visitors shouldn’t have to be aware of the technical feats behind the scenes, the lighting should create a complete sensory experience.”

The Canadian Museum of History isn’t the first project of this sort that Lightemotion has worked on, having built up an extensive portfolio of museum projects over its 16-year history from as far afield as China, Italy, New Zealand, Singapore, and its home nation of Canada. However, Roupinian believes that this time around, it offered up a different challenge than usual.

“It is quite a different museum project compared to the others that we have done in the past,” he explained. “We normally design lighting for exhibits that are very immersive, and where the architecture is not very present, or at least is not placed in the forefront.

“But in this project, we were able to apply our sensibilities in lighting design both in the exhibit lighting and in the architectural lighting. Both have to be in symbiosis, without upstaging each other. This was a great challenge for us, and we feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a great client and talented exhibit designers and architects.”

As such, Roupinian is very pleased with the end result, and he believes that their work in the lighting design could lead to new avenues for LED in the world of museum lighting. “This is a new benchmark for uses of LED systems in museums, where it is possible to have good control and a high quality of lighting, like we were able to have in the past with halogen technology,” he said.

“I am currently working with different manufacturers in designing fixtures that would be more suited for museum lighting. We often use the same type of fixtures for retail and museum lighting, which I don’t think is a long-term solution. The industry has to adapt to the needs of lighting in museums, that is mostly driven by the control of lux levels on artefacts.”

This work, Roupinian feels, serves to add to the success of the project: “I honestly feel that we were able to bring the lighting to its maximum potential with the technologies available when we designed the project,” he exclaimed.

“We are very happy with the result, and so are our clients. The lighting tells a story and guides the spectator throughout the different galleries.

“I think the lighting helps to make a connection, keeping the visitors connected to the space and the artefacts that tell the story of Canada.”