In a world of science-cum-entertainment, it's only natural that museums are turning to high-tech, cool-design exhibits. This is certainly the case at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, where Space Odyssey opened as a permanent exhibit last summer. “The museum is re-inventing itself and re-energizing its exhibits,” says John Featherstone, senior partner in the lighting design firm of Lightswitch (Chicago office), and LD for Space Odyssey (with exhibit design by Delphi Productions of Alameda, CA).

Entry to this space-based attraction is through a portal that leads into a color-changing tunnel. “The light draws you into the exhibit,” says Featherstone, who used 45' of Pixeon LED tubes on either side of a hallway to create the effect. The tubes are placed in a cove and bounce off a curved Moss ceiling (stretched fabric over an aluminum frame) with latticework below the fabric.

First stop on the space tour is the Visitor's Center, which has a silver, high-tech look with two main groups of fixtures. First, 40 High End Systems C16 MR16 fixtures create rippling patterns of color. “These are used as fluid downlights so the space does not have a static look to it,” Featherstone explains.

The room also has a framework of metal truss on the ceiling, carrying through the metal latticework from the entry portal. “There is light grazing the truss,” says Featherstone, referring to 100W cable-mounted silver fixtures with barndoors, and MR16 Ardee bendable-track task lights in silver with cobalt blue pendants that pass through the membrane of the lattice.

The Galaxy Theatre in the Visitor's Center has ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs controlled by touch screens on the wall. “You can access a menu of different shows via the show control system by Oxmoor (of Birmingham, Alabama) and Lightswitch, who worked with Oxmoor to program what Featherstone calls “shows by number. The shows are seamlessly integrated,” he says. “The lighting was roughed in on a Wholehog, like a big blue DMXter, then the DMX values were downloaded into the show control system. The volunteers who work at the museum can punch in the show they want.”

A large diorama of Mars dominates the Visitor's Center, with a presentation stage designed as a “planet outpost, as if you were in a space lab facility on Mars, looking out at a Martian landscape,” Featherstone notes. The crisp lighting includes industrial-looking jelly jars and red and blue random blinking lights. “You see astronauts on the surface of Mars who do simulated interactive experiments with the public,” he adds. “The challenge was working in a small place and having to balance perspective with a moving human. We had to achieve a layout that worked well.”

The diorama has a painted backdrop with three-dimensional rockwork in the foreground. “We had to light an environment that no one really knows the look of,” says Featherstone, referring to the landscape of Mars. “We had to think about what it really looks like vs. people's expectations. It may not really be red, as current thinking is that the sky on Mars is a dusty, mustard yellow color. The museum needs to give people accurate scientific information, yet they have to believe it is Mars.”

To enforce the idea that the diorama is an outdoor landscape, a soffit was built to hide 40 CDM lamps, and ETC Source Fours of various sizes. There are also feathered patterns created by gobos, color, and City Theatrical Beam Benders. “The idea was to create the look of one single source as the sun on Mars, but by using multiple sources,” says Featherstone. “We want people to believe they are seeing an astronaut on the surface of Mars, with one strong dominant shadow.” Spherical floodlights, AAL (Architectural Area Lighting) Oculus fixtures, are placed on the front of the space station to provide work light for the astronaut.

Another eye-catching scenic element is the frosted glass outer wall on the Gates Planetarium. “It looks as if part of the wall has been peeled away, and you are looking into the drum of the planetarium,” Featherstone explains. In the planetarium lobby, pendant fixtures with spheres of blown glass look like astronomical bodies that have been captured and arranged like constellations. There is a small stage area here as well, with Times Square Lighting fixtures on pantographs to give the space a performance-venue look.

“What was great about this project is that we were involved very early on. In some situations we find ourselves playing catch-up in terms of the big picture. The sooner we get involved the better to help us give the client a cost-effective, immersive environment,” says Featherstone.

“This project illustrates what a museum could be like in 20 years,” he adds. “Using technology transparently to help educators connect with the public and turn education into entertainment. There is so much competition for the museum audience, it could be Dave & Busters or another museum. Our job is to make the attraction as interesting and engaging as possible.”