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Blossoming Light in Expressive Room Sculptures by Licht Kunst Licht

An Orchestration with High Contrast Lighting for the Permanent Exhibition of the National Museum of Qatar

With its ceremonious inauguration and prominent guests from around the world, the National Museum of Qatar opened its gates on March 27th 2019 after more than 10 years of design and construction. The breathtaking architecture of Pritzker Prize laureate Jean Nouvel was inspired by a sand rose and opens up expressive spatial sequences of incredible grace. For the 11 galleries of the permanent exhibition, the Licht Kunst Licht team developed an architecturally integrated light narrative that accompanies the visitor in a scenic and suspenseful manner through the 700 million years of natural and cultural history of the Gulf state.

The Sand Rose – Inspiration from Nature

In 2008, the public foundation Qatar Museums, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was able to win over the French star architect Jean Nouvel for the new construction of the National Museum of Qatar. Formerly located within the Old Palace of Sheikh Abdulla bin Jassim Al Thani (1880 – 1957), built in 1906, the museum has undergone an enormous expansion of an impressive 40,000 square meters.

The unique architecture of the new building reflects the deep connection of the once nomadic people with the desert, fauna and flora of the country: It evokes a sand rose, a crystal structure, formed by sand, salt water and wind, naturally occurring in the Gulf state. As such, the building resides prominently at the shore of Doha’s Corniche, characterized by large, convex disks, intersections and cantilevering canopies, its form is spatial and sensual, providing shade and refuge.

Inside, volumes of great expression emerge, with room sequences of both crouching and cathedral-like heights, sometimes evoking the intimacy of nomadic tents, sometimes the vastness of the firmament. Daylight pours in through gaps, apertures and spandrels in carefully selected locations – as the powerful, harsh sunlight of the region had to be tamed to fulfill conservation related requirements. It reveals the spatial room shapes yet maintains a respectful distance to the mostly sensitive exhibits.

The exhibition itself takes the visitor on a 2.7 km long course, that spans across the geological history in the Qatari peninsula’s distant past, introduces its flora and fauna, and illustrates the country’s rapid development from a loose affiliation of nomadic tribes and pearl divers of the past, towards the technology savvy and affluent society of the present. All the while, it focuses on archaeological findings and craftsmanship as well as recent economic and political developments. Furthermore, commissioned artworks from renowned local and international artists are on display.

Powerful Orchestration through Densification and Dissolution

The exhibition is characterized by a sequence of artifacts, models and reproductions in a variety of display cases, complemented by video projections and screens. The visitor moves between visual realms that barely overlap. The lighting concept had to take this progression into account, requiring a powerful orchestration of the exhibits and spaces.

For this reason, a concept of two light layers was developed: General illumination provided by glare controlled adjustable luminaires in the ceiling, and the emphasis of individual exhibits in the display cases by means of integrated and mostly invisible miniature luminaires.

The location of luminaires followed a complex coordinated set of densification and dissolution rules: All light sources had to maintain a specific distance from projections and screens in order to not diminish the effect of the imageries. The ceiling luminaires avoid all show cases which have integral lighting, thus honoring them with an attenuated “event horizon”. Free standing exhibits and highly transparent dematerialized displays, on the other hand, were emphasized with brilliant accentuating light from the ceiling.

The light colour 3,000K is used throughout the museum. In conjunction with the strongly zonal lighting and the predominantly lower illuminance levels, it is sometimes evocative of a nocturnal bonfire.

Bespoke Light from the Ceiling

The ceiling luminaires consist of adjustable spot lights that are recessed into the sculptural suspended ceiling. The light emanates through a small “pinhole” opening in a larger, flush mounted trim ring matching the ceiling colour.

The wide-ranging spatial geometries and the extremely diverse exhibit proportions required diverse photometric properties for the adjustable spot lights. Three different beam angles are used – spot, medium and flood, combined with optical accessories if and where required. These include sculptural lenses for an elliptical light distribution near walls, or honeycomb louvers for strong ceiling inclinations. Furthermore, the fittings have supreme glare control and are hardly apparent in the ceiling perspective.

A real challenge was the placement of the appropriate light photometries in the highly sculptural spaces. Since 2D plans were minimally helpful, each zone and exhibit had to be verified in the virtual 3D BIM model and detail sections. Simultaneously, the goal was to maintain a sense of order in the ceiling layout and to align fittings with gridlines and special reference points wherever possible.

Another particularity is the individual adjustability and dimmability of the luminaires via remote control. In order to address a specific luminaire, the handset connects via infrared control and can then tilt the optic up to +/- 35° and rotate it by +/- 175°. This not only allows for a correction of the light scenography if exhibits are exchanged, but above all provides an enormous simplification of the aiming process. Otherwise, scaffoldings and cherry pickers would require careful positioning to ensure they do not block the light cone being aimed – which is both time consuming and impossible in some instances. As a result, the remote control lighting provides sophisticated and hassle-free adjustment and aiming for all exhibits. This is pleasantly obvious in the luminous ambience.

Concealed Light in the Display Cases

The showcases in the National Museum of Qatar are as diverse as the exhibition spaces themselves. Some rooms become displays in their own right, other configurations intertwine showcases with walls or floors, or the displays become large magazines of shelving that house a multitude of differently sized exhibits. Each lighting solution is therefore carefully adapted to its location and contents.

All lighting equipment inside the show cases are modular: A profile accommodates the through-wiring, the miniature spotlights and linear light inserts are placed according to requirements and aimed accordingly. Other configurations involve luminaires that connect mechanically and electrically to a live rail via magnets.

The path through Gallery 2, for instance, leads into the underwater realm of the marine habitat. A projection designed by the multimedia consultant Ducks, immerses the original sized sea creatures in sunlight infused sea water with its softly rolling waves, as seen by scuba divers in the reef. Invisible to the observer, framing projectors are concealed in the overhead space of the display and precisely accentuate the models without disturbing the light effect of the rippled, moving water surface.

While freely positioned, dematerialized glass cases are solely illuminated through ceiling recessed adjustable spot lights, all displays that form an interface with the architecture, such as ceilings, floors or walls, contain hidden light sources. Such a detail is found in the wall integrated Arthropod display. Here, the country’s native butterflies are lined up in a splendid array. Concealed in the upper and lower cavity is a group of LED miniature spot lights that detail the delicate texture and vibrant colours of the wings.

The biodiversity wall, by contrast, functions like an oversized cabinet. Species of various sizes coexist in modular compartments, which integrate their own concealed linear illumination. It creates a soft breath of light while the accent lighting comes from the ceiling.

The Al Zubarah Trench shows burial objects in a floor cavity enclosed with glass. Hidden in small coves in the display’s cross section are small, pivotable linear LED elements, that emphasize the exhibits on the floor.

Like mannequins in a shop window, the historic festive dresses and jewellery are displayed in a full height showcase. Invisible to the observer, adjustable accent lights are mounted in a channel in the case’s ceiling and elicit manifold textures and colours from the fabrics in spite of the low illuminance levels.

The highlight of the exhibit, however, is the Baroda carpet, embroidered with the finest pearls and gem stones. It is displayed on a sloping surface and protected by a surrounding vitrine that pierces into the ceiling surface. Following its longitudinal flanks are rows of very small spot lights. These apply a layer of discretely overlapping light cones on the precious carpet and allows its materials to sparkle brilliantly in the directional light.

An Impressive Museum Experience for the Visitor

The visitor is thus transported to a journey across 700 million years of natural and art history as well as recent political events in the country of Qatar. The wealth and diversity of the exhibits address guests with most widely spread fields of interest. The quality, sequence and presentation of the exhibits create ever changing themes and involve all senses of the visitors, who are practically absorbed by the exhibition by quality of the abundance of impressions.

The illumination plays a subtle, yet significant part in this. The finely tuned interplay of all components, such as the sparse, but spatially defining daylight, the accentuating ceiling light, the differentiated display case illumination and the magical wall projections of the multimedia designers create a sensory sequence, that resonates with the visitor long past their visit.

National Museum of Qatar, Doha,
Qatar Museums Authority, Doha
Client Assistance:
ASTAD; Qatar Petroleum, Doha
Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Paris,
Contact: Philippe Charpiot (Project lead)
Project management:
EMA architectes associés, Geneva,
Architect of record:
QDC – Qatar Design Consortium, Doha,
Lighting design permanent exhibition (11 galleries):
Licht Kunst Licht AG, Bonn/Berlin,
Project lead: Martina Weiss
Deputy project lead: Stephanie Große-Brockhoff
Project team: Laura Sudbrock, Daniela Torres Toledo
Lighting design other interior spaces, electrical engineer:
Ingénieurs-Conseils Scherler SA, Geneva,
Renaud Pierard Studio, Nantes
Special exhibitions:
Art+Com Studios, Berlin; Opera, Amsterdam
Medial scenography:
Ducks Scéno, Paris
Art Film consultant:
Pierre Edelman
Pentagram, London
Landscape architect:
Michel Desvigne Paysagiste, Paris
Project size:
7,000 sqm (exhibition area divided into 11 galleries)
Danica O. Kus,

Luminaire manufacturer (extract):

Recessed ceiling lights:
Manufacturer: RCL Remote Controlled Lighting Ltd., UK; Type: Custom DR7
Display integrated lighting:
Manufacturer: iGuzzini; Type: Track + Palco Framing Projector
Manufacturer: XAL; Type: Nano+ Just 26 Focus
Manufacturer: corporate friends; Type: C1-STS 2.0

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