Working in event and entertainment lighting production in Washington DC, you learn quickly about working at the Smithsonian Museums. Not only are these buildings home to tens of thousands of artifacts, but they are beautiful, visually stunning places to hold events.
Our company, Atmosphere, Inc., has lit every Smithsonian Museum opening since 2000. When I heard about the reopening of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, I contacted TBA Global, the company managing the reopening festivities, about working on the event. At the time, the entire museum was a live construction site, with hard hats and safety boots mandatory for our tour. In spite of the state of the venue, we could still see the fantastic transformation in progress.
The new floor plan punched a huge atrium space from the first to the fifth floor, with a massive skylight and grand staircase connecting all the floors in a coherent manner.
For the opening gala, the museum wanted the opening party to expand into the entire museum and not just concentrate on the new atrium. Additionally, we had to light the exterior of the building on the night of the gala. The morning following the opening gala, the museum planned to host an official opening ceremony at which President Bush was scheduled to make remarks covered by national media.
Utilizing the design concept put forth by event designer Mark Chaikowski, I worked out a flexible lighting plan that would allow us to transform the space for the opening gala but at the same time retain the new, light, airy, openness of the renovated museum. Starting with the exterior, we wanted to convey an “All-American” atmosphere with lots of red, white, and blue lighting. We carried this theme into the renovated Constitution Avenue entrance, focusing on the new glass staircase that leads to the third-floor atrium. Tying all the areas together is the new atrium itself that houses the Star Spangled Banner Gallery.
For the red, white, and blue exterior look, we used all conventional fixtures, both to keep within the budget and for their ability to work in the cold of late November. Quince Imaging, Inc. provided the American flag via video projection. Two Sunbelt-supplied 56kW Whisperwatt generators provided the power to 84 1kW PAR64-lamp bars for the color wash on the buildings sides. Twenty-four ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with gobos on the upper level projected the stars on the walls. Twelve Source Four PARs and two more clusters of 10° Source Fours were used to highlight the building’s name and uplight the entryway in a pale gold.
The hallway of the first floor Constitution Avenue entrance was lit with banks of fluorescent lights on either side that could not be turned off for safety reasons. These were incorporated into the look of the room by using 500' of Apollo GelWrap™ in New York Blue (AP 4150) to cover them, and then we used ETC Source Four ellipsoidals to project star patterns all over the ceiling. The stairs leading to the second-floor atrium, a key focal point for the museum, are made of semi-transparent panels, which were lit from below by nine Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions/Color Kinetics ColorBlaze® 72s and eight Barco/High End Systems Studio Color® 575s that rolled red and blue continuously up the stairway. From above, we projected more star patterns over the steps to create the effect of an American flag blowing in the breeze.
On the second floor, the new central atrium held the stage for the opening ceremonies. Above the stage, the large abstract flag sculpture dominates the room. Eight Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance units and 36 Philips/Color Kinetics ColorBlast® fixtures combined to texture the flag and rake the ceiling of the atrium with a blue wash and more stars.
Working on the thematic areas around landmark objects was the most creatively interesting part of the event. The first floor east wing, for example, focuses on transportation, with an early 1800s locomotive as the major element. Mark wanted to keep the feel by creating a period railroad dining car. To complement this, we lit the gallery in chocolate and rust hues for a sepia, old-timey feel. The first floor west wing contains Julia Child’s kitchen, and here we used Arri 300 Plus Fresnels to create a television studio around actors serving salad from a mockup of the kitchen counter.
On the second floor, a section of lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s anchors the east end, along with the Albert H. Small Document Gallery that contains an exhibit of documents from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. This was also the location of the VIP pre-reception, where Mark wanted to bring in a mid-1800s formal dining room with rich red velour and glass chandeliers. Washing Apollo flame breakups across the floor combined with PAR38 fixtures in deep red tones, we gave the gallery a rich, luxurious feel. Additionally, we hung a small glass chandelier over the dining table for a special touch.
The last themed gallery, located on the third floor west side, is a WWII-era USO lounge built around the “Price of Freedom” exhibit with Clara Barton’s Red Cross ambulance as the central artifact. This wing was updated a few years ago and lacked some of the special event features of the other spaces. To compensate, we used strings of red, white, and blue 25W bulbs strung between lighting trees to give the gallery a retro feel. Digging deep into our equipment archives, we found two Strand 8" Fresnels and lamped them down to 250W to light the band, giving the lighting equipment a period look as well.
The renovations took this space from being simply another museum to a glowing, open modern building holding pieces of our country’s history, from the Revolutionary War to the gowns of our First Ladies. Similarly with the lighting design, we combined fixtures both new and old, using the more modern fixtures in the atrium for the newly renovated spaces, with the older fixtures highlighting the artifact displays in the wings.