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Blacktip Reef Exhibit, Baltimore, Maryland

Issue 78 April / May 2014 : Retail : Museum


The National Aquarium in Baltimore is an Aladdin’s cave for fish fanatics, with hundreds of species dwelling deep within the museum’s many habitats. The Blacktip Exhibit with its thrilling sharks and rays has been boosting visitor numbers three-fold since it opened in 2013. Flux Studio produced an enthralling lighting design for the exhibit.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is a gargantuan love letter to the seven seas. With a living collection of over 17,000 animals, together numbering 750 species of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, the site is a glass cathedral to all things aquatic.

The building of the aquarium in 1981 was a vital part of Baltimore’s urban renewal plan and the institution has since proved continuously popular with an annual attendance of over 1.5 million.

The animas all reside in carefully constructed habitats, which are naturalistic to the core. In the summer of 2013 the Aquarium opened Blacktip Reef, an impressive exhibit that replicates an India-Pacific reef in all its unfathomable complexities. The replica reef features more than 700 animals, including the real crowd puller of this aquatic muster, twenty blacktip reef sharks.

In 2011 Flux Studio was approached by Cambridge Seven Associates to join the design team handling the creation of the Blacktip Reef exhibit at the National Aquarium.

From the outset, it was clear that this was a project that would call for delicate handling. Artistry was required to create a memorable and enjoyable setting, but equally, a high level of technical precision was needed to meet the scientific demands of the project, ensuring the optimum relationship between light and water for the best viewing experience throughout the five-storey space.

The differing requirements of numerous species of animal had to be taken into account too when developing a lighting plan, including the needs of numerous rays, sharks and countless other marine species, each with their own biological requirements in relation to light.

“We performed a walk through and an assessment of the space and it was clear to us that the area as it stood lacked a hierarchy of focus,” comments Glenn Shrum, Flux Studio’s project head. “This was creating a rather bland environment, and one where the richness of detail in the upgraded tank habitat would be hard to make out.”

In response to these complicated requirements, numerous steps were taken during the development of the lighting design.

“Non-featured surfaces were illuminated to similar levels as exhibitions,” comments Shrum, “and by using High Dynamic Range photography to analyse the existing luminance levels, we were able to clearly show this to the clients as a visual map, and also to show them what focusing light on the displays and reducing it in other areas could achieve.”

Improving the quality of the light in terms of colour and consistency was also considered, as well as creating easy access to lighting in order to allow maintenance work to be completed without unnecessary problems.

To create a dramatic visual effect both above and under the water surface Flux Studio set out to increase the apparent brightness of displays, while counter balancing this with a dimmer saturated blue light in the non-display areas. As visitors move throughout the space, the interaction of light and water is called to mind by the use of reflective and refractive materials such as acrylic and mirrors combined with dynamic lighting. The resulting ripples, patterns and shifting views create the feeling of being immersed in a magical underwater world.

At the entrance to the space a reflective acrylic art piece refracts watery patterns onto the wall, while blue light gracefully rises and falls in intensity, grazing the wall surfaces, setting the scene for what is to come. An eye-catching feature has also been created in the entrance by focusing light onto large acrylic tubes with water bubbling inside them, the bubbling water prompts changing light patterns that reflect off the nearby mirrored wall and ceiling surfaces.

The central tank within the Great Hall presented an exciting design challenge to the team. The intent was that no direct light would strike the visitor walkways or adjacent surfaces within the complex three-dimensional space. Over 50 framing projectors in seven optimised locations were aimed to ensure the full impact of the light is restricted to the tank, as well as being accessible for maintenance.

A building wide control system has been installed in order to manage the photoperiod setting, including gradual sunrise and sunset transitions that support animal health and limit algae growth.

By limiting all direct light to the water surface the architectural surfaces throughout the Great Hall are animated with reflected light patterns. Mirrored surfaces on the diagonal overhead walkways present shifting views as visitors move through the space, but the central focus remains always on the tank, with detail and depth visible even from the upper floors.

Low level adjustable blue LED fixtures for general light and LED graphic panels address circulation and display requirements without causing eye adaptation issues, ensuring that visitors can enjoy the exhibits without any awareness of the lighting challenges.

“Although it appears unified when viewed from above, in fact the lighting to the tank is varied in both intensity and distribution,” concludes Shrum. “This increases the perception of scale and distance when seen through the underwater viewing windows. The light patterns have been designed to emulate the quality of light and shadow that would be found in an Indo-Pacific coral reef at noon.”


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