National Museum of Qatar, Qatar

23rd August 2019

After more than ten years of design and construction, the breath-taking National Museum of Qatar opened its doors in March of this year.

Designed by Pritzker Prize laureate Jean Nouvel, the museum was inspired by the desert rose – a crystal structure formed by sand, salt water and wind that naturally occurs in the Gulf state – and the unique architecture is intended to reflect the deep connection of the once nomadic people of Qatar with the desert, flora and fauna of the country.

Characterised by large convex disks, intersections and cantilevering canopies, the museum’s form is spatial and sensual, providing shade and refuge for visitors.

Inside, volumes of great expression emerge, with room sequences of both crouching and cathedral-like heights, sometimes evoking the intimacy of nomadic tents, sometimes the vastness of the firmament. Daylight filters in through gaps, apertures and spandrels in carefully selected locations, as the powerful, harsh sunlight of the region had to be tamed to fulfil conservation-related requirements. The natural light reveals the spatial room shapes, yet maintains a respectful distance to the mostly sensitive exhibits.

The exhibition itself takes the visitor on a 2.7km-long course that spans across the geological history in the Qatari peninsula’s distant past, introduces its flora and fauna, and illustrates the country’s rapid development from a loose affiliation of nomadic tribes and pearl divers of the past towards the technology savvy and affluent society of the present. Throughout, it focuses on archaeological findings and craftsmanship, as well as recent economic and political developments, while commissioned artworks from renowned local and international artists are also on display.

For the eleven galleries of the permanent exhibition, Licht Kunst Licht developed an architecturally integrated light narrative that accompanies the visitor in a scenic and suspenseful manner through the 700 million years of natural and cultural history of the Gulf state.

Because of the building’s unique design, the lighting designers at Licht Kunst Licht were asked in their initial design brief to “establish a lighting scheme that would not interfere with the architectural volume”, according to Martina Weiss and Stephanie Grosse-Brockhoff, Directors at Licht Kunst Licht who were Project Lead and Deputy Project Lead respectively.

“We were asked to keep both the light atmosphere and the fittings as unobtrusive as possible. It was even a request to make the luminaires ‘disappear’. Indirect lighting or a purposeful illumination of the envelope was not desired. In turn, this meant that we were looking into a more object-focused and introverted lighting approach, thus making the architecture appear through reflected light.”

The exhibition is characterised by a sequence of artefacts, models and reproductions in a variety of display cases, complemented by video projections and screens. The visitor moves between visual realms that barely overlap. The lighting concept had to take this progression into account, requiring a powerful orchestration of the exhibits and spaces.

For this reason, Licht Kunst Licht developed a two-layered lighting concept: general illumination provided by RCL’s Custom DR7 glare-controlled adjustable luminaires in the ceiling, and the emphasis of individual exhibits in the display cases by means of integrated and mostly invisible miniature luminaires, courtesy of XAL and corporate friends.

“The aim was to illuminate the exhibits rather than the space,” Weiss and Grosse-Brockhoff explained. “The approach using two layers was largely determined by two driving factors: first of all we tried to perforate the ceiling only where necessary. Secondly, we tried to minimise reflections of ceiling luminaires in the showcases. This motivated us to integrate lighting in display cases wherever possible. However, we didn’t use integrated lighting in display cases with glass ceilings.”

As part of their aim to “establish a lighting layout with as few ceiling apertures as possible”, adjustable RCL spotlights were recessed into the sculptural suspended ceiling. Light emanates through a small pinhole opening in a larger, flush mounted trim ring matching the ceiling colour.

The wide-ranging spatial geometries and extremely diverse exhibit proportions required varied photometric properties for the adjustable spotlights. Three different beam angles were used – spot, medium and flood – combined with optical accessories if and when required. These included sculptural lenses for an elliptical light distribution near walls, or honeycomb louvres for strong ceiling inclinations. 

The showcases in the National Museum of Qatar are as diverse as the exhibition spaces themselves. Some rooms become displays in their own right, other configurations intertwine showcases with walls or floors, or the displays become large magazines of shelving that house a multitude of differently sized exhibits. Each lighting solution is therefore carefully adapted to its location and contents.

The path through Gallery 2, for instance, leads into the underwater realm of the marine habitat. A projection, designed by multimedia consultant Ducks, immerses the life-sized sea creatures in sunlight-infused seawater with its softly rolling waves, as seen by scuba divers in the reef.

Invisible to the observer, iGuzzini framing projectors are concealed in the overhead space of the display, precisely accentuating the models without disturbing the light effect of the rippled, moving water surface.

While freely positioned, dematerialised glass cases are solely illuminated through the ceiling-recessed spotlights, all displays that form an interface with the architecture contain hidden light sources. Such detail is found in the wall-integrated Arthropod display. Here, the country’s native butterflies are lined up in a splendid array. Concealed in the upper and lower cavity is a group of XAL’s Nano+ Just 26 Focus miniature spotlights that detail the delicate texture and vibrant colours of the wings.

The biodiversity wall, by contrast, functions like an oversized cabinet. Species of various sizes coexist in modular compartments, which integrate their own concealed linear illumination. It creates a soft breath of light while the accent lighting comes from the ceiling.

Elsewhere, the Al Zubarah Trench shows burial objects in a floor cavity enclosed with glass. Hidden in small coves in the display’s cross-section are XAL’s small, pivotable Nano+ Turn linear LED elements that emphasise the exhibits on the floor. While, like mannequins in a shop window, the historic festive dresses and jewellery are displayed in a full height showcase. Invisible to the observer, corporate friends’ C1-STS 2.0 accent lights are mounted in a channel in the case’s ceiling, eliciting manifold textures and colours from the fabrics despite the low illuminance levels.

The highlight of the exhibit, however, is the Baroda carpet, embroidered with the finest pearls and gemstones. It is displayed on a sloping surface and protected by a surrounding vitrine that pierces into the ceiling surface. Following its sides are rows of very small spotlights, from corporate friends. These apply a layer of discretely overlapping light cones on the precious carpet, allowing its materials to sparkle brilliantly in the directional light.

While the building stands out for its unique shape, the distinct geometry of the space caused some challenges for the designers, as Weiss and Grosse-Brockhoff elaborated: “There are no orthogonal angles, no horizontal ceilings or vertical walls. Intersections and cantilevering elements create barriers that potentially shield light sources from exhibits or pick up scallops.”

As such, each zone, exhibit and associated ceiling integrated lighting had to be verified in a virtual 3D BIM model. The goal here was to maintain a sense of order in the ceiling layout, and to align fittings with gridlines and special reference points wherever possible.

“The virtual 3D BIM model was very helpful to coordinate not only the architecture, museography and lighting, but also the light fittings among all other building service elements in the ceiling,” Grosse-Brockhoff and Weiss continued.

Although intended as one continuous journey, differentiation occurs through the varying exhibits and displays, according to Grosse-Brockhoff and Weiss. “Mostly, the atmosphere of the spaces is rather introverted and object-focused,” they said. “The image projections seem to open up ‘windows’ and vistas, and create a level of radiance.

“In some spaces, the showcases and walls intertwine, walls become carriers of photographs, or include displays. In these instances, the spatial envelope becomes a luminous surface that blends into the sequence of projections. This succession of focused display cases, projections and wall displays creates a lively variety of introspection and extroversion.”

The wealth and diversity of the exhibits throughout the National Museum of Qatar addresses visitors with a wide field of interest. The quality, sequence and presentation of the exhibits create ever-changing themes, and involve all the senses of the visitors, who are practically absorbed by the exhibition, and the quality and abundance of impressions.

The lighting plays a subtle, yet significant part in this. The finely tuned interplay of all components, such as the sparse but spatially defining daylight, the accentuating ceiling light, the differentiated display case illumination and the wall projections, creates a sensory experience, that resonates with the visitor long past their visit.

Pic: Danica O. Kus