Jan 6, 2019

Visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian are overwhelmed by a panoramic display of illuminated objects—a metaphor for the Native American’s influence on our culture

By Paul Tarricone

Hiding in plain sight. That’s the story behind an exhibit that aims to convey the impact Native Americans have had on the nation’s culture. The 9,200-sq ft exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is simply named “Americans.” The rationale for the exhibit is just as succinct: “Indians are everywhere”—even though we may not realize it.

Indeed, images of American Indians are ubiquitous, from the Land O’Lakes Butter maiden to the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, from classic Westerns and cartoons to episodes of Seinfeld and South Park. American Indian names are everywhere, too, ranging from state, city and street names to professional and college sports teams. Familiar historical events and stories, such as Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears and the Battle of Little Bighorn have also become part of everyday conversation.

Not only does the exhibition strive to reveal this phenomenon of hiding in plain sight, it also asserts that these images and stories are a powerful way to understand a country fascinated, conflicted and shaped by its relationship with American Indians. “Our hope is that visitors will come away from the exhibition not only more aware of the pervasive presence of Indian imagery and words in their lives,” says Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, “but also with a new understanding of important historical events they thought they knew.”

Visitors to the exhibit are surrounded by nearly 300 objects and images spanning three centuries of American history. They include a Tomahawk flight-test missile, a classic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, a Big Chief writing tablet, a Calumet Baking Powder can, a Washington NFL team baby blanket, as well as clips from TV shows and films. Interactive screens allow visitors to learn more about each.

Click images for larger view

First Impression

Curiously, the museum experience does not attempt to build anticipation as visitors move through space. Instead, guests are overwhelmed by images of American Indians in the first room they enter—the oval-shaped Nexus gallery. It might seem like sensory overload, but that’s exactly the point, says Anita Jorgensen (Anita Jorgensen Lighting Design, New York City), who crafted the lighting plan in conjunction with exhibit designer Studio Joseph. “The first space a visitor encounters was meant to convey how many references to American Indians there are in American culture. I was astonished at how much this imagery pervades the sense of being American.”

The walls of the Nexus gallery are covered with metal framework. Mounted to the framework are 196 translucent acrylic panels (Figure 1) in 18 different sizes (fabricated by Duggal Visual Solutions) that display the various American Indian imagery. The question was how to light this panorama of panels. “There would be no magic if everything was front-illuminated,” explains Jorgensen, who earned a 2018 IES Illumination Award of Merit for the project. Instead, Jorgensen specified rear-illuminated custom LED panels, which meant each rectangular unit would act as both an “artifact” and a “luminaire.” The panel luminance was based on whether the graphics on the front were color or black-and-white, and how much black or white was present in the respective image. The color temperature of the LEDs in the panels is 3700K in order to balance the warming effect of the acrylic and is slightly cooler than the 3000K light sources used in the rest of the project.

Jorgensen’s lighting plan for the Nexus also included track-mounted LED framing projectors to precisely illuminate uniquely shaped objects. In one instance, a Tomahawk missile is suspended 14 ft above the floor and lit by framing projectors, as well as a continuous, high-CRI LED panel below. LED track lighting was also installed to discreetly light the text on the artifacts. In addition, 62 sealed cases are regressed into the metal framework and internally illuminated by a custom linear LED rod. An illuminance level of 5-10 footcandles was required to meet the conservation standard for sensitive materials.

Branching Off

Five galleries radiate off the central Nexus. One feature is a curving recessed case built into the wall that weaves together cultural references and artifacts. The case is internally illuminated with a continuous linear LED wash, as well as miniature adjustable LED spotlights for highlighting objects. This case lighting also contributes to the ambient light.

Conservation standards also played a role in the use of custom casework in these other galleries. To protect and display the delicate ceremonial regalia, the garments are illuminated from above by track luminaires, with the light filtered through softly diffused optically clear glass. Measuring 6-ft high by 15-ft wide, an historic muslin painting is evenly illuminated from top to bottom by a two-part LED/fiber-optic system to a maximum of 4 fc standard for this object.

Translucent scrims were another tool used to convey the American Indian experience. They are covered in graphics and text, and used as projection surfaces. In some cases, says Jorgensen, “an artifact on display behind an open-mesh black scrim is visible due to the balance of light on either side. The lighting creates a theatrical bleedthrough effect.”

Highly specialized lighting was also used in an interactive console that tells the story of Pocahontas. The figures in a backlit frieze are illuminated in sequence, as the beam from LED framing projectors precisely matches the shape of each figure in the case.

LEED Redux

Theatrical lighting and artifact conservation were two factors driving the design. The third was energy use. In 2011, the museum became the first Smithsonian museum building to achieve LEED certification (Silver). The LEED pursuit continued with the new “Americans” exhibition. Lighting power density came in at 0.52 watts per sq ft, vs. a maximum LPD allowance of 1.11 watts per sq ft, earning the exhibit all five points available for “Energy Performance/Lighting Power.” LEED Silver certification for the “Americans” was awarded in September 2018.


Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone has more 25 years of experience in association and business-to-business publishing, specializing in the engineering, design, construction and facilities management markets. Mr. Tarricone currently serves as Editor and Publisher of Lighting Design + Application,... More info »