How to fit a killer whale through a door…

Whale

How interior architecture transformed a Grade 1 listed lighthouse in the Shetland Islands. Re-imagining Sumburgh Head Marine Life Centre and building a whale of a story.

A Grade 1 challenge

At drawing board stage the enormity of this project was clear. The challenge was to convert Stevenson’s oldest lighthouse, built in 1821, into a 21st century Marine Life Centre.

The sensitivity of working in a Grade 1 listed building meant restrictions applied to almost everything, coupled with the impracticality of its remote location on Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands. Just to add another layer to the consideration process it was also set in a nature reserve and site of special scientific interest.

It did have its challenges, but what a great challenge! Bringing to life the abundant, diverse heritage of the Shetland landscape, and natural history, which surrounded this beacon of light. It needed real creative and commercial vision to secure the multimillion-pound investment and move it beyond a paper dream.

“We felt we were the guardians of the building, standing on the shoulders of giants.” - Geoff Bogacki

Under the sea

The singular visionary approach was to create a ‘journey’ across two floors of this Marine Life Centre and capture the imagination of all ages. Everywhere sights, sounds and interactive media worked in harmony merging two- and three-dimensional content. This included an immersive underwater ‘cocoon’ that submerges you in to the diverse marine life surrounding Sumburgh Head, from zooplankton to minke whales.

So how do you fit a killer whale through a door?

The answer wasn’t sideways! We wanted to create a centrepiece to the exhibition with real ‘wow’ factor. So it had to be the model of Busta, the killer whale. Of course the Grade 1 listed doors could not be moved, a centimetre, let alone an inch. So craftsmen made Busta from a skeleton model and pieced him together in the room. He remains at the heart of the exhibition, a very petted and loved giant whose whale sounds are also heard as part of the experience.

We impressed royalty

When HRH Princess Royal, patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board, opened the exhibition, she hit the nail on the head when she remarked, ‘it must have been a challenge in such a small space.’ It was a challenge, however we overcame it with the help of clever design and the backing of the local community and stakeholders. Opening the door to killer whales, working around engine boilers and making walls come alive with marine life with the clever use of technology.

A beacon of light

Now acknowledged as a world-class visitor attraction, you can find out more about Sumburgh Head Marine Life Centre at www.sumburghhead.com/marine-life-centre

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