Lighting, Scents, Action!
Behind the Scenes with Real Pirates: HMNS turns a doomed ship into a show
Stepping into the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is like discovering a portal to the past. Winding through the exhibit, visitors see the cruelty of slave ships, smell the scent of a well-traveled tavern, hear the clanging of the ship Whydah’s bell and touch the priceless coins found on the bottom of the ocean. It’s these little touches that leave a big impact, and for senior vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International Mark Lach, it's all in a day’s work.
Before Lach and his team ever enter a museum gallery, they hit the history books and discuss the specifics of a time period with scholars and historians. For the Real Pirates!exhibit, Lach learned from slave trade and pirate historians to develop the content. Once the facts are in place, Lach begins the creative process.
“We want to create a theatrical experience and take advantage of the topic. It’s not just a pirate story,” Lach says.
Before ever entering the exhibit, visitors learn about the Whydah, a doomed slave ship turned pirate vessel, in a short film. Shown in a round theater, the movie uses creative lighting to give the feel of a storm and when the screen raises dramatically, revealing the Whydah’s bell submerged in water, the moment is breathtaking.
“That opening film was created just for the exhibit and it gives people the same starting point. The reveal of the bell means so much, especially because of the doubters who didn’t think it really was the Whydah,” Lach says.
Finding the bell authenticated the ship’s remains, validating the discovery.
The exhibit took three to four weeks to put together, which is impressive considering the Whydah’s recreation is true to size. Lach and his team added scent cannons in the tavern, dotting the air with wood smoke, and evoking moods throughout the exhibit with special lighting.
“The exhibit has hills and valleys. I hope guests connect to the somber feeling when they see the slave trade objects, because that’s really powerful,” Lach says. “Lighting can do so much for you and really contribute to the creative process.”
Ask Lack what part of the exhibit is his favorite and he laughs, saying that’s like asking a parent which one of their children is most loved.
“I’m so taken by the treasure, all the coins spilling out. The science gallery at the end with the concreted objects still in water are like treasure chests just waiting to be opened,” Lach says. “The guns and swords bring you back to what is true.”