Museum Lighting

Museum lighting – the dark art of brightening up our cultural spaces

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: Lighting at the new Canon of the Netherlands exhibition

Museum lighting provides the richness and drama that our museums and heritage attractions need, especially for the exhibitions and collections that are on display. As technology changes so too does lighting and in our four case studies we delve into past and present projects from museums and the lighting design companies that are pushing the boundaries

At the Petrie Museum of Egyptology at UCL, we discover a workshop that acts a testing lab for the latest technology in lighting that is then installed in the museum. This involves using smart lighting through the existing lighting grid to experiment with a combination of LED lights and Bluetooth that can track the location of visitors. Lighting designer, Panos Andrikopoulos, who was chair of the organising committee for the 1st Museum Lighting Symposium and Workshop, held at Petrie Museum in September, says that lighting design for museums is at ‘crossroads’ with LED lights promising so much in terms of longevity – some high-powered LEDs have the potential to last between 20,000 and 50,000 hours (although they haven’t been around long enough to prove) – and the light emitted contains hardly any infra-red and no ultra-violet, meaning sensitive objects may not need to have additional filters.

The light-emitting diode (LED) is the most rapidly-developing lighting technologies and as well as being the most energy-efficient, good quality LED light bulbs are more durable, and offer comparable or better light quality than other types of lighting and offers.

“The drive to reduce energy consumption has led to a wide and rapid adoption of LED technology by museums and heritage institutions,” he says. “LED technology creates new opportunities and poses new challenges to colour, lighting and conservation science and practice. While LED technology allows for novel applications such as optimisation of the spectrum for vision and/or preservation, it has revealed inadequacies in existing colour reproduction measures, has not yet proven to be cost effective, and has raised concern over light induced damage. Projects like the illumination of the Sistine Chapel, where the light source was specifically optimised to the pigments used for the murals, showcase the possibilities but highlight the need for engineering the capabilities of LED technology.”

We also get a detailed look at three projects including TM Lighting’s work at the London Design Festival and Sutton Vane Associates project to light up the new National Museum of Oman. Half way through the project in Muscat, Sutton Vane Associates decided to change the lighting system from tungsten halogen lighting to LEDs as the technology had become more mainstream as the project progressed. In the Netherlands we find out how lighting designers and show control specialists, Rapenburg Plaza have added drama to an underground exhibition with their lighting installations at the new Canon of the Netherlands.

Stijn van Bruggen, project manager at Rapenburg Plaza, says that when it comes to lighting design and new projects museum professionals should always ask questions and choose what’s right for their museum, which doesn’t always mean having the latest technology.