DPA has created an immersive visitor experience with their lighting for a pair of exhibitions about the history of Dubai
Client: Dubai Municipality
Lighting design: DPA Lighting Consultants
AV consultant: XYZ
Exhibition designer: GSM Project
Completed: January 2019
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
DPA Lighting Consultants has worked on two new exhibitions at the Al Shindagha Museum in Dubai in collaboration with architects GSM Project: the Perfume House and the Story of the Creek. These aim to present the unique history and culture of the Emiratis, engaging visitors in an immersive and multi-sensory educational experience. GSM Project was first appointed for the exhibition design, and having seen DPA’s portfolio, invited the independent lighting consultants to collaborate. The two teams got on well, forming a partnership over a relaxed interview where ‘we didn’t really talk about the project much but talked a lot about light’, says Lee Sweetman, project lead and director at DPA.
DPA employed uplighting on the vertical surfaces in the courtyard. Image credit: Alex Jeffries Photography Group.
As the project went on, Sweetman describes the process collaborating with GSM as ‘intuitive’ as they both ‘really speak the same design language’. He also credits client Dubai Municipality for its high expectations and aspirations that helped to drive the quality of the project. The work took place over approximately one year, with a brief break to resolve construction and conservation issues. Sweetman says everybody in the DPA studio got involved at some point: ‘Everyone pitched in from concept to completion. It was a fantastic team effort.’
Sweetman explains what DPA’s aims for the project were: ‘The priority was always to create an immersive experience to complement the artefacts and exhibits.’ This had to combine with consideration for the nature of the location – any contemporary interventions to the historical site had to be done sensitively. DPA worked closely with specialist conservators to ensure lighting would not damage the historical objects on display, but would still show off their unique qualities.
The client Dubai Municipality had high expectations and aspirations that helped to drive the quality of the project. Image credit: Alex Jeffries Photography Group.
The Perfume House exhibition brought another factor into the equation: scent. The building is the former home of the late Sheikha Shaikha bint Saeed bin Maktoum, who was a keen perfumer herself, and now the Perfume House exhibits a series of distinctive scents associated with Dubai. Guiding the visitor through a narrative of the country and its relationship with scent, the display shows the local ingredients used in perfume-making and the important history of their trade over the centuries. But to communicate this history most powerfully, the exhibition presents a number of scents via a series of large, glass vials with metallic, trumpet-like, custom-made devices from which to smell the perfume. Sweetman comments: ‘Scent is an evocative sense and it was a real challenge calibrating lighting levels to match the intensity of that experience. Differing scents such as oud almost suggest more intimate lighting levels, whilst other, less intense, fragrances illicit quite different emotions.’ Lighting the glass vials from below made the exhibits stand out from the darkened surrounds, drawing the visitor out of the shadows for an intimate sampling of the scents.
The company used a limited range of kit, ensuring installation and maintenance would be simplified. Image credit: Alex Jeffries Photography Group.
Overall, the lighting scheme was streamlined in terms of equipment, using luminaires with the flexibility to cover both ‘architectural detailing and general circulation requirements’. This didn’t prevent DPA from tailoring the lighting to each exhibit and artefact: it specified a variable beam-angle luminaire combined with a range of optical accessories. Its decision to use a limited range of equipment ensured installation and maintenance would be simplified, without any loss of impact or functionality. DPA describes this as ‘robust but flexible’. Sweetman explains: ‘Track and spots were specified to help minimise the physical installation and to assist in the distribution of power and data across the individual galleries. DALI control protocols were used to allow individual dimming of each luminaire on the track.’
Part of the Story of the Creek exhibition. Image credit: Alex Jeffries Photography Group.
DPA describes the exterior courtyard as a particular challenge: again, it took a simple but effective approach, using only one luminaire type in combination with GSM’s internally illuminated walls and benches. To draw attention to the heritage of the building, making its history and materiality felt even at night, DPA used uplighting on the vertical surfaces. Sweetman says the company is very happy with the results. This space is also spectacular at night, although it might be enjoyed most in the cooler and darker hours of the winter months, while the internal courtyard could also be used for lectures and talks yearround to complement the space’s purpose as an exhibition and educational space.
The effect of the lighting on an already evocative pair of exhibitions is to immerse the visitor in the history of Dubai, whether they are taking a close look at a 3,000-year-old incense burner or simply following their nose.