The Wadden Sea Centre, Denmark

14th August 2017

The Wadden Sea is a UNESCO World Heritage site that stretches 500km along the coasts of The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. It is a biologically rich, dynamic land and seascape that is a rich habitat for birds, seals, porpoises, dolphins, and crustaceans, many of them regionally endangered.

Located in Ribe, Denmark, literally on the beach of the Wadden Sea, The Wadden Sea Centre (WSC) is a new facility, completed in 2017. The Centre is a museum between land and sky that communicates the astonishing story of 15 million migratory birds that use the preserve to feed and rest during their long journey across continents.

The Centre’s new exhibition – ‘The Wadden Sea migratory birds’, is a journey through the landscape of the Wadden Sea – an incredible, aesthetic, fairytale exhibition about The Wadden Sea as seen through the eyes of migratory birds.

JAC studios, in collaboration with Jason Bruges Studio and No Parking, created the exhibition in harmony with the special nature of migratory birds, and the design creates a balance between communication and aesthetics that is unique in its field, building on the inspiration and interpretation of nature and allowing visitors to get a closer understanding of the importance of the site in the life of these birds.

A beautiful staging area begins the visitors’ journey with the birds. We see their lives in the Wadden Sea, and we follow them up in large swarms into the sky.

Plain white walls and exhibits provide a perfect canvas for gel-tinted, pastel lighting and multimedia projection, creating a wonderfully soft but dynamic environment for contemplation, study, and even entertainment.

The leading characteristic of the Wadden Sea is the breath-taking, infinite landscape with an all-encompassing horizon that creates the illusion of sky and land becoming one.

This vast landscape served as a key inspiration for JAC Studios, as lead architect and founder Johan Carlsson explained: “Upon my first visit to the Wadden Sea, I was captivated by the flat and infinite landscape. In the course of the project we have studied this landscape and especially the origins of the migratory birds. The landscape is in constant motion in the area; tides and migratory birds follow their own rhythms.

“This called for an exhibition that would last and age beautifully, an exhibition that was sustainable and had several layers of storytelling.”

Fortheloveoflight(.dk) provided lighting design for the exhibit, creating with the architect a new design and structure that inhabits the space as an integrated design element, without being technically imposing. It’s a partnership that has worked well previously, as Carlsson continued: “At JAC Studios, we are fortunate to share a studio with Fortheloveoflight, and have worked with Nikolaj Birkelund on several projects,” he explained.

“I believe that through these projects we have created a close process regarding our approach to lighting. Nikolaj and I share a common eagerness to develop new and custom made solutions to each project. I see the lighting design as a team creation, the light underlines the storytelling of the space and must be considered early in the design process.”

One such custom made solution for The Wadden Sea Centre came in the shape of the BBX.70 ‘Birdbeamers’. Designed by Fortheloveoflight and JAC Studios and produced by Mike Stoane Lighting using Xicato XIM Gen4 Artist modules, these fixtures are as much architecture as they are lighting – a visually simple and flexible low voltage lighting system with bespoke luminaires that becomes an integral design element in the exhibit, inhabiting the space rather than cluttering it.

“Common to all of the spaces is the urge to look up and sometimes out – maybe due to the theme of birds or the height of the spaces,” said Birkelund. “In a search not to disturb that moment with technical equipment and traditional track fixtures we came up with the idea of the BBX.70: a smart wireless, low voltage, plug ‘n’ play system that would contribute to the experience.”

The designers translated the reflection and the experience of dissolving horizons into the Birdbeamers with a materiality to match and designed a light rig that appears simple on the outside but is tech-rich beneath the surface. To give lightness to the visual expression, Fortheloveoflight positioned the lights on top looking down like birds perching on higher ground, very much in keeping with the theme of the exhibition.

The decision to opt for the Xicato XIM Gen4 Artist series stemmed from a need for a lighting control system that provides individial light control with deep, smooth dimming, that was simple to set up and simple to use. Mike Stoane Lighting has previous experience with the XIM, and with museum work, making them the ideal choice.

Understanding the complexities of the anatomy of birds requires focus and attention to detail. The lighting for the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ is integrated into a bespoke spine-rig that references the skeletal system of a bird. The delicate spotlights are high CRI to illuminate interior features such as the hand-painted watercolour paintings by the artist Carl Christian Tofte. The lighting invites you to silently explore and investigate the birds’ anatomy at a closer scale, offering a peaceful environment for concentration and learning, as Birkelund explained: “The integrated and close-up lighting is very important to how the visitor perceives the space. It adds hierarchy and makes the artifact stand out.”

The elevated world in which birds often inhabit is high in the sky where natural light is in constant change. From moonlight, sunrise and sunset, the birds experience an extensive variety of colours throughout the passage of a day. Within the exhibition, Fortheloveoflight worked with carefully selected and tested glass colour filters to reference the natural light and the softness of the sky.

“We experimented with tinting the light in pastel colours to envelop the visitor in a cloud of merging sky colours,” continued Birkelund. “The pastel colours take you up into the sky with the birds as they fly to distant continents.”

Jason Bruges Studio, in collaboration with Fortheloveoflight and JAC Studios, created an immersive installation that represents the 15 million migratory birds. Digital Ornithology is the last sequence of the exhibition and is comprised of hundreds of LCD screens suspended from the ceiling in a sequence that represents the migration of the birds. “It follows a journey of exploration and discovery of the native birds, to being fully immersed in their unique habitat and behaviours,” said Birkelund.

“The walls and ceiling of the space are grazed in cool white light to dissolve the boundaries of the space and create a backdrop for the LCD panels as they flicker like birds in the sky. Together with JBS, we programmed the dynamic lighting to follow the flow of the story being told. With the light, we could shift the focus of the space as a swarm of birds would take off.”

With an amalgamation of projection mapping of live footage and the light-modulating behaviour of the LCDs, the result is an ephemeral and captivating experience.

Throughout the centre, the exhibition made use of high-sloped ceilings punctured with windows, flooding the spaces with both direct sunlight and diffuse skylight. While this provides a closer connection to the outside, inviting visitors to look up and dream about the habitat of the birds, it is something that Birkelund believes sets the centre apart from other exhibitions.

“Exhibition spaces are usually controlled spaces that have little to no daylight because of the delicate objects on display. In this project, the artificial light and daylight had to merge and play together,” he said.

This blend of natural and artificial light was designed to support the narrative of the exhibition, communicating the surfaces, textures, artefacts and design elements in the best way possible, as Birkelund explained: “Through the lighting, we underline the storytelling and guide the visitors around the spaces with carefully selected illuminated elements and focal points.

“Each space has a unique light experience without deviating from the central concept. Each space tells a different story and that is also expressed through the lighting,” he continued.

“Not all spaces have access to daylight or are brightly lit. Some spaces invite visitors to play, touch and feel, while some spaces have a more contrastful setting, offering concentration and deep learning.”

Wadden Sea Centre was also among the first to test the Xicato Intelligent Gateway (XIG), which officially launched in April 2017. The XIG creates an intelligent Bluetooth network that is connected to the Centre’s MediaLON local area network that controls its multimedia projectors and audio, and serves as the building management system (BMS).

The project was a deeply collaborative process, with Fortheloveoflight working closely with JAC Studios, who in turn worked alongside Jason Bruges Studio and No Parking. Such collaboration is something that Carlsson feels is essential when working on exhibitions such as this. He explained: “To create an exhibition is somewhat similar to that of making a film. Several disciplines need to be working together: the craftsmen, the technical staff, the lighting and sound designers, graphic designers, etc.

“I believe that if all have the engagement and love for their individual discipline, and an understanding of the whole, the result will be unique.”

The result of this strong teamwork has received an influx of positive feedback, with more than 55,000 visitors to the exhibition since it opened in February. And Birkelund believes that the strong lighting design has helped to make it an enjoyable experience for all of these visitors.

“The Wadden Sea is a unique place that requires a unique approach,” he said. “The lighting plays a key role in the experience of the new Wadden Sea Centre, and the feedback and overall interest for the exhibition and the lighting design has been very positive and rewarding.”

Carlsson added: “What makes this project special to us is how we, from the very beginning, challenged the concept of a nature visitor centre, and with design, art and craft created a balance between communication and aesthetics that has proven to be unique it its field.

“I hope that the experience will continue to inspire visitors to explore the diverse life on the Wadden Sea and the magical world of these migratory birds.”

Pic: James Medcraft