By Rebecca Pogson
A new gallery at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver mimics real-time daylight conditions via a custom sensor and tunable light to showcase art ‘in the wild’
Set on the cliffs of Point Grey in Vancouver, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is as world-renowned for its remarkable architecture as it is for its art collection. The concrete and glass building was designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson and integrates into the landscape with views of mountains and ocean, indigenous plants and grasses, and an outdoor sculpture complex that includes several totem poles by contemporary First Nations artists.
The museum’s Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks displays more than 110 historical indigenous objects and offers a fully immersive experience with video, audio, text and light. The 1,600-sq ft gallery recently underwent a $3.5 million tenant improvement that included lighting design by AES Engineering, Vancouver. According to lighting designer Doug McMillan, the exhibition was designed for occupants to be able to explore the art as they would in the wild. “Since most of the objects were created from nature, we wanted the viewer to experience them the way the artist intended.” Of course, viewing artifacts in natural light and natural conditions outdoors is nearly impossible due to weather conditions that would damage them. McMillan and his team had to get creative with a lighting design that would emulate the outdoors, inside, and in a space with very little glazing. “Big, open windows and skylights run through most of the museum, but because this space was a theater, it was dark, with nothing but a small window in the corner,” says McMillan.
To overcome this, McMillan designed a ceilingmounted softbox lighting system that adjusts to the color temperature of the daylight outside the gallery via sensors, bringing the feel of the outdoors in. A typical white backlit ceiling features a 4-ft-wide section of tunable white fabric that runs along the perimeter of the space and emulates the daylight outside. LED luminaires provide soft ambient light through the fabric ceiling, allowing the art to be seen as it would in natural daylight conditions. “Having the correlated color temperature (CCT) change to match the daylight allows the visitor to have a new experience with the artwork with every visit, just as we experience with items in our day-to-day life,” says McMillan. Items in the morning appear with the warm glow from the rising sun; as the day progresses, the appearance of the items evolves and shifts to cool with the afternoon daylight color temperature, allowing for an entirely different experience. In other words, as the daylight changes, so does the artwork.
READ AND REACT
Tunable white cove luminaires use a mix of 2700K, 4000K and 6500K LEDs located at 45-deg angles to provide the most even illumination possible through the fabric. This type of illumination was due to the minimal setback from the existing ceiling. The tunable white luminaires are controlled by a DMX controller connected to a roof-mounted custom sensor. The sensor measures the CCT as well as the intensity of the daylight. Every three minutes, the sensor takes a reading and sends it to the DMX controller, which then recalibrates the luminaires in the gallery. At the time the project was being constructed, a sensor that could measure the CCT and intensity of the exterior environment did not exist, so McMillan had to work with a local controls supplier to create a custom-programmed sensor that would scan the color temperature of daytime light and feed the data back to the DMX controller, which then adjusted the interior color temperature to match the exterior. “This solution provided the level of control and automation that the project required,” says McMillan.
While 6500K isn’t as cool as regular daylight, the sensor was adjusted to set the scale of the sensor to work on a ratio. “So, essentially we’re treating 6500K like 7000K-8000K,” McMillan explains. The sensor not only reads the color temperature of the outside, it also reads the intensity of the light. This means that on a bright, summer day, it will be bright and white inside the room, and on a cloudy day, the intensity inside will be less so. “It’s almost like a 4D experience,” says McMillan. “Like when you go to Disneyland, and you’re watching and listening, but they’re also spraying water on you. The tuning of the white light allows for that other level of immersion and dimension so that you almost forget that you’re standing in a gallery.” In addition, the large luminous ceiling panel creates a sense of a skylight and openness above. “It really lifts the ceiling and takes away that closed-in feeling so that it doesn’t feel like a small room when you’re standing in there. And because the color is more natural, it further makes you feel like you’re outside.”
According to McMillan, the biggest challenge was working with the building’s 10-ft ceiling height. “The new ceiling that was going in had to be a certain height because it needed to fit a certain size panel on the wall,” he explains. “Traditionally, when you lay lighting out for this type of fabric ceiling, whatever the distance is from fabric to light fixtures is the distance between light fixtures, but our offset from the ceiling was only 7 in., so in order to do light fixtures every 7 in., we would’ve gone way above budget.”
The team created a full-scale, 8-ft-long mockup with the fabric, and laid out the light fixtures in different positions to get a pattern that lit the ceiling well and would have the least amount of lamp image as possible. “We originally did a 4-ft section but didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we did a full mock-up,” he says. The contractor built a ceiling out of plywood and stretched the fabric below it. They then placed it on lifts so everyone could stand below it and watch as they cycled through all the colors.
While the gallery’s tunable LEDs are undoubtedly the star of the show, the careful use of layers of light brings it all together. LED track heads highlight special pieces, while OLED panels in movable glass cases showcase items in the middle of the room and can be unplugged and moved around. “You need flexibility in a space like this, so the track heads work well because they can be pointed at multiple pieces, allowing for a lot of variation,” says McMillan. To provide a completely integrated design, the track lighting is recessed into the ceiling to provide as small of a profile as possible. This integration along with the internal glare control ensures the art is the main focus of the space.
Tunable light is becoming increasingly popular, particularly when used to emulate circadian rhythms in places like schools and hospitals. “Every manufacturer is pushing tunable light,” says McMillan. “But we’re not comfortable allowing an untrained, unmonitored person the ability to alter the color temperature, since we know it can possibly adversely affect the occupant in the space.” While the gallery’s lighting does include a manual override so that color temperature can be adjusted for shows and other special events, McMillan notes the primary use is to have the actual daylight outside calling the shots via the sensor. “There’s nothing better than the sun’s natural movement,” says McMillan. “I think more buildings should explore this type of tunable light. Rather than have people in the space controlling light, let’s have a sensor control it, the way light actually is outside.”
McMillan says the museum is exploring other ways to integrate this type of light into its spaces. “How many art galleries have natural items like this on display, and people have to experience them just under a standard track head?” he asks. “It was really great to have a progressive client that could see that it should be lit this way.”