Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry on Lake Shore Drive has taken center stage with Science Storms, a series of new interactive exhibits that depict such forces of nature as tornados, avalanches, fire, tsunamis, lightning, atoms in motion, and sunlight. Focus Lighting of New York collaborated with exhibition designers Evidence Design to create both the illumination for the 26,000sq-ft. space-at-large, as well as the individual exhibit lighting.

“We wanted to make the space appealing and set off the exhibits,” says Paul Gregory, principal designer at Focus Lighting. “We selected blue light as the wrapper for the exhibits. It reflects the brightness of the night sky. It’s mysterious, and it soaks up any stray light while at the same time helps the exhibits stand out.” The Focus Lighting team comprised designers JR Krauza and Joshua Spitzig, assistant LD Dan Henry, and project manager Kenny Schutz. They began work on the project in January 2007, completing the multi-year design process in March.

For the saturated blue glow on the upper perimeter, fixtures include Insight arm-mounted T5 fluorescents, while Lamar T8 striplights with reflectors glow in the upper cove, and Boca Flasher Hi-power Linear Blue LEDs gleam on the main floor and mezzanine.

Within this blue envelope, the exhibit spotlighting and accenting is primarily white light, using ETC Source Four 150W HID ellipsoidals with various beam spreads, primarily hung from five catwalks approximately 60' above the main exhibit floor. These also add projections onto the floor of the entry ramp leading into the Science Storms gallery. Additional fixtures used for exhibit lighting include Times Square Lighting track fixtures with HID lamps (Philips 20W T4s) and MR16 (50W Sylvania Brilliant) lamps. The overall lighting throughout represents 3.7 watts-per-square-foot.

A glow beneath exhibits from under the main exhibit floor is created by Philips Color Kinetics eW Cove Powercore linear LEDs with Rosco R68 (Sky Blue) color filters, while Wildfire 400W HID UV floodlights provide the glow for tennis balls shot from one side of the projectiles exhibit to the other: the ultraviolet lights brightly illuminate the yellow balls without the unwanted effects of conventional lighting.

“We asked the museum team how they define success in a science museum,” says Gregory. “Their answer was to be able to inspire a ten year-old boy or girl. So we had to define what that meant to us, what that environment would look like.”

Among the special effects is a 40'-tall column of swirling vapor and light that illustrates the forces that cause tornados. This tornado exhibit, the largest one in the gallery, is 60' tall, 27' in diameter, and weights 75,000lbs. The vortex of swirling air and vapor was constructed by Production Resource Group (PRG), whose challenge was the sheer size of the exhibit, which meant it could only be tested onsite once it was installed.

PRG also engineered and built a 16,500lb, 20' avalanche disk, working closely with Christopher Wilson, senior project manager at MSI. This exhibit reveals how granular materials behave and how avalanches form. As the large disk is rotated by guests, they see how granular materials can act like a liquid as well as a solid, which is a key concept to understanding an avalanche. Again, realizing this was challenging, this time in terms of not exceeding a maximum load of 250 pounds-per-square-foot (PSF) for floor loading. Since the avalanche has dynamic motion, they needed to subtract for the live load, so PRG really only had 150 PSF. Both the tornado and the avalanche displays were fabricated at PRG’s New Windsor, NY facility.

Other effects include a large Tesla coil that replicates bolts of lightning and is bathed in amber light to make its copper coils stand out against the dark blue ceiling. “The challenge here was to light the coil yet keep the area dark enough to see the lightning jump,” Gregory points out.

In an example of light replacing nature, K5600 800W HID Joker Bugs substitute for sunlight in heliostat exhibits on overcast days or at evening events. The lighting fixtures’ powerful full-spectrum sources stand in for the sun. On a sunny day, this exhibit uses an automated heliostat perched on the roof that follows the sun and reflects a shaft of sunlight down into the space. “You can perform experiments with the light, such as using prisms to create brilliant rainbows of color, recreating Isaac Newton’s prism experiment,” says Gregory.

Another exhibit about light—specifically, reflection and refraction—is Light Behavior, based on the work of Berlin-based light artist Peter Sedgley. Highly interactive, this exhibit uses moving fins, or blades, of dichroic glass, rotating reflective surfaces, and mirrored cylinders to create beautiful patterns of light and color to demonstrate the behavior of reflected light. “The kids can vary the angle of the dichroic fins so they affect the colors and patterns of the light,” says Gregory.

“The ultimate goal was to isolate each exhibit within the space so guests can see and enjoy the effects and experiments without being confused by light from a different exhibit,” says Gregory, “and to get kids to imagine something they never imagined before.”