The cultural centre includes six museums – Ecosystems, Human Body & Mind, Our Earth, Arabic Islamic Science, Transportation & Robots and the Space Museum – as well as an Arts Centre, theatres, cafes and resting places.

Sutton Vane Associates designed a generic toolkit of highly flexible lighting which could start to be installed and ready to light any exhibits that the designers developed. However, with some ceilings in the six galleries having heights of 14m, aiming the lights onto the exhibits was carried out by a team of high-wire workmen flown in from Nepal.

Their job was to focus the spotlights precisely according to the instructions from the lighting designers. “We had to teach them how to adjust the beams on the thousands of Concord spots and how to aim fittings really precisely,” said Mark Sutton Vane of London-based Sutton Vane Associates. “One degree of rotation from 14m up is a big distance down on the floor. At ground level we gave them sample fittings to practice with and taught them instructions like ‘rotate left’, ‘rotate right’, ‘bigger beam’, ‘smaller beam’ and so on.”

Read more on the Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre:
The below case study sees BECK fit-out the museums 

As the high-wire workmen only spoke Nepalese and their boss only spoke Arabic and Nepalese, everything was translated first from English into Arabic and then from Arabic into Nepalese, which was then shouted up 14 metres.

To build the mammoth 22,000 square metre project so quickly, the lighting design process was carried out backwards. The electrical contractor, SI, had to know where the fittings and the wiring was going to be to give them time to install it before Cultural Innovations, the designers, had designed the displays.

Daylight and sunlight penetration studies were carried out for every gallery in every museum to give the architects and the exhibition designers valuable insight into areas where too much of the bright Kuwaiti sun might get into spaces.

These daylight studies, says Sutton Vane, helped the layout of the windows, the specification of the glazing and the design of the electrical window blinds.

The cultural centre includes six museums – Ecosystems, Human Body & Mind, Our Earth, Arabic Islamic Science, Transportation & Robots and the Space Museum – as well as an Arts Centre, theatres, cafes and resting places

The Ecosystems gallery was to have a forest of living of trees, creepers and bushes so Sutton Vane Associates worked with the planting specialists to make sure that the huge living trees would have enough light to thrive. “A large tree dying would be catastrophic. It’s very expensive to remove a full size dead tree and plant a live replacement.”

The practice specified 100 dimmable fittings each of 26,000 lumens. For special events it is possible to flood parts of the forest with lighting of any colour. Visitors walk through this forest on a 10m high walkway that goes through the trees.

At the end there is a long sloping travellator that carries them down to the forest floor. Changing projections of eyes and snakes in a projected jungle background spook the visitors as they move downwards and see the frightening visions appearing.

The visitors then pass a huge aquarium on another travellator. The aquarium is in the same space as the forest, its light levels have to be kept relatively low to prevent algae growing. So a lot of careful aiming and timing of the lights had to be carried out. This was made easier because in the end some of the forest was made with artificial trees that do not need high light levels.


The lighting was designed to be deliberately different around the museums to keep the visitor interested and includes some spectacular lighting effects.

One whole gallery has a huge display showing how white blood cells move towards and attack bad bacteria. There are several thousand small LED spheres that are all programmed to chase around the gallery in spirals moving towards the huge glowing models of bacteria. Some of the spheres are red representing red blood cells and some are white. It took several days to programme up the different attack sequences. UFO built the thousands of LEDs and their supporting structure.

In the Innovate gallery a forest of hanging fibres that visitors can push their way through and get lost in, all change colour in a complicated programme to support the story that is being told by the graphics and the audio visual displays.

There is a large sphere-shaped Planetarium which can be seen from outside one of the museums. At night 20 moveable multi-gobo and multi-wheel projectors light the huge sphere with imagery that is representative of the main planets and the sun. So the sphere looks first like Mars then like Venus, then it looks like the boiling sun and so on.

Many exhibits have built-in lighting to heighten the displays and in some galleries the exhibits all appear to be lifted off the floor with glowing light under plinths. In the Space Museum there’s a full size accurate replica of the International Space Station which visitors can explore. Sutton Vane Associates spent a lot of time with the design team researching and replicating the light fittings inside the Space Station so that they are accurate.

Mark Sutton Vane of Sutton Vane Associates and Andrew Wood-Walker of Cultural Innovations will discuss the Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre project at the free one-day Lighting for Museums and Galleries conference. Their presentation – How to light the world’s biggest museum – takes place at 11.10am on Wednesday 14 November. The conference is one of eight subject tracks taking place at the LuxLive 2018 exhibition at ExCeL London, which takes place on Wednesday 14 November and Thursday 15 November 2018.

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Project Specialists

Lighting Design: Sutton Vane Associates

Masterplan for the content: Cultural Innovations

Architects: SSH

Exhibition design: Cultural Innovations

Fit out main contractor: Beck

Electrical Contractor: SI Electrical

Building special light effects: UFO

Lighting suppliers include: Concord, iGuzzini, LED Linear, Mike Stoane, Erco, Helvar, ACDC, Pulsar, Applelec, Light Graphix, GE, UFO, Martin