Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre, Kuwait

23rd October 2018

With a gallery area covering a vast 22,000sqm, the Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre is one of the largest museum complexes in the world, housing 22 galleries and thousands of exhibits. Its central covered thoroughfare acts as the spine of the space and evokes the feeling of walking down a busy Kuwaiti street, tying the complex together. There are six main museums across the complex: Ecosystems, Human Body & Mind, Our Earth, Arabic Islamic Science, Transportation & Robots and the Space Museum, along with multiple cafés and restaurants, educational rooms and theatres. Outside the museum complex stands an array of large-scale sculptures, including a rocket that is illuminated with Pulsar’s colour changing spots, creating an effective visual impact.

The Cultural Innovations team assembled more than 140 members, of which 30 specialised in content creation, interpretation and content development, alongside 25 exhibition designers with additional expertise for graphics, and audio-visual development. This group of experts were brought together from a variety of backgrounds, including universities, zoos, botanic gardens, museums and organisations such as the European Space Agency to provide advice and ensure scientific facts and interpretations were correct. Alongside this extensive team of experts for the internal content of these exhibits, the landmark complex was delivered in its entirety with the efforts of architects SSH Design and contractors Alghanim International and Beck.

The lighting design was completed by Sutton Vane Associates (SVA), which worked alongside 96 other consultants and sub-contractors from thirteen countries to bring the large project together on time. SVA was initially appointed to design all of the lighting schemes back in 2015. However, construction had not started at this point and a soft launch opening deadline was set for 2017, not giving the team long to devise and input their lighting design. Mark Sutton Vane, Director of the lighting firm, commented: “To build this huge project so quickly, the lighting design process was carried out backwards. The electrical contractor, SI, had to know where the fittings and the wiring were going to be, to give them time to install it all before Cultural Innovations, the designers, had designed all the displays.” In order to combat this issue, SVA designed a “generic toolkit of very flexible lighting, which could start to be installed and then was ready to light the amazing exhibits that the exhibition designers developed,” explained Sutton Vane.

During the initial stages of planning, the team at SVA carried out daylight and sunlight studies for each gallery space to give the architects and exhibit designers a crucial insight into where the hot spots of the Kuwaiti sunlight was getting in to. These studies also aided the architects in placing windows, specifying glazing and designing of electrical window blinds.

The lighting was specifically designed to be different for each of the individual museums in order to maintain visitors’ interest and to keep elements of separation visible between the varying subject matters of the museums.

For many of the individual exhibits, SVA used a large selection of fittings to specifically illuminate the artefacts and installations. Mike Stoane Lighting provided a large number of spotlights, many of which were built into the exhibits and provided a useful range of optics and powers for the teams to work with. For the more subtle illuminations, Applelec and Cooledge provided LED Light Panels for backlighting the exhibits and graphics along with LED Linear, which integrated linear lines of LED tape into the exhibits.

One example that took particular advantage of the varied lighting designs put in place was the Ecosystems gallery. A live forest of trees, creepers and bushes was put into the centre of the museum space, which posed a challenge for the lighting designers. It was extremely important, financially and practically, to keep the forest alive and flourishing, as the task of removing a full-sized dead tree was not an option for the Cultural Centre. SVA sought advice from planting specialists for the lighting levels needed for the living forest to survive. 26,000 high-powered lumen floodlights by GE Lighting were used to provide growth lighting. Additionally, the forest can be flooded with colour for special events. Sutton Vane described the visitors experience further: “Visitors enter this forest on a ten metre high walkway that goes through the trees. At the end there is a long sloping travellator that carries them down to the forest floor. Changing images of eyes and snakes in a projected jungle background spook the visitors as they move downwards, seeing the visions appear as they descend. An aquarium is in the same gallery space and its lighting had to be much lower to prevent the growth of algae. So, a lot of careful aiming and timing of the lights had to be carried out. This was all made a little easier in the end because some of the forest was made artificial, so did not need the high light levels originally planned.”

Martin Professional changeable gobo projectors were used to create the projected effects that visitors experience when moving down the travellators.

In an equally large gallery, a huge display showing how white blood cells move towards and attack bad bacteria in the human body is formed out of several thousand LED spheres. These spheres are all programmed to chase around the gallery in spirals moving towards large glowing models of bacteria. Some of the spheres are lit red to represent the red blood cells and others are white. Several days were taken to programme the various attack sequences of the UFO built LEDs and supporting structures to create the desired dramatic effects in the spiralled blood cell display.

In the Innovate gallery, designers created a forest of hanging light fibres by UFO that visitors push their way through and get lost in. Sutton Vane explained the design of this gallery space further: “All of the fibres change colour in a complicated programme to support the story that is being told by the graphics and the audio visual displays. There is a large sphere-shaped Planetarium in one of the museums that can be seen from outside. At night, twenty moveable multi-gobo and multi-wheel projectors, by Martin Professional, light the huge sphere with imagery that is representative of the main planets and the sun. So the sphere first looks like Mars, then like Venus, then the boiling Sun and so on.”

UFO also provided an external LED fibre optic map of the stars of the universe for people to gaze at.

Throughout all of the museums and galleries, luminaires have been built in to heighten the displays and in some gallery spaces the exhibits all appear to be lifted off the floor with glows under their plinths. A large combination of fixtures were installed across the complex, including downlights from acdc, miniature spotlights from LightGraphix, downlights from Reggiani, Linear LED profiles with built in optics by UK LED Lighting, Linear RGB LED strips by LED Flex and spotlights by Concord, Mike Stoane and Erco.

Notably, the Space Museum is an incredible feat for the design teams to undertake. A full size accurate replica of the International Space Station was created for visitors to explore. SVA spent a lot of time and effort to research and replicate the specific light fittings used inside the space station and matched them as best as possible to make the true replica.

In total, SVA specified over 20,000 light fittings from the multiple suppliers. Most of the fittings are DALI dimmable and some work on local DMX control systems. Philips Color Kinetics and Pharos Controls, both supplied by Architainment Lighting, provided control systems for controlling some of the DMX controlled lighting, which demanded fast changes in the exhibits or were controlled by AV or visitor interaction. Helvar completed all of DALI control systems across all of the museums.

Once construction of the complex was complete, it didn’t leave a lot of time for the implementation of the fixtures. SVA had two or three designers on site for months to carry out the aiming and programming of this huge site. They also acquired a team of Nepalese abseiling workers to aid in the focusing and aiming of the fixtures in the fourteen-metre high galleries across the museums. Sutton Vane described the challenges his team had to face during this process: “We had to teach them how to adjust the beams on the thousands of track mounted Concord Beacon Muse DALI spots and how to aim the fittings really precisely – one degree of rotation from fourteen metres up is a big distance down on the floor. At ground level, we gave them sample fittings to practice with and taught them simple instructions like ‘rotate left’, ‘rotate right’, ‘bigger beam’, ‘smaller beam’ and so on. This was made more complicated because they only spoke Nepalese and their boss only spoke Arabic and Nepalese! So everything was translated from English into Arabic and then from Arabic to Nepalese, which was then shouted up fourteen metres.”

Some decorative elements were also added: Original BTC with the Titan Size 1 decorative pendant lights and a bulkhead with retro LED lamp for a model plane installation. Traxon Technologies installed individually addressable RGB LED Dot XL 3 with domes for a black hole exhibit in the Space Museum. Also used were Megaman dimmable globe E27 lamps with opal coating and Instyle LED 24V ultra violet LED tape for black light effect lighting.

The hard work has paid off for the SVA team, winning them the Public Building of the Year at the ABB LEAF Awards in 2017. It has also been entered into the darc awards / architectural 2018 awards.

Pic: Sutton Vane Associates