Light at the Museum
Compass Spot spotlight at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, Greece ©Louisa Nikolaidov
There's no photograph or online database that can recreate the experience of seeing fossils, artifacts, and works of art in person. Whether it's a favorite impressionist painting, an evocative wire sculpture, or an ancient vase, an object is so much more expressive when viewed in the context of the museum that houses it. This makes sense: museums are carefully and expertly designed to create the fullest experience possible of the works that visitors come to see. The grandeur of the architecture, the carefully thought out walkways, even the order of the exhibits - all are meticulously planned to maximize the visitor's enjoyment and understanding.
Pure Spot spotlight at the Edward Hopper exhibit at Palazzo Reale, Milan ©Germano Borrelli
The process of choosing the right kind of light for an exhibit is almost as nuanced as curating the exhibit itself, as designers aim to best showcase the displays while protecting the artifacts from light radiation that can damage sensitive materials. Ultraviolet and infrared rays accelerate the fading of colors and deterioration of delicate materials - which is why you won't find any fluorescent lighting at the Met. Equally important in museum lighting is preserving the color quality. You may love warm, golden light in your living room at home, but incandescent lighting accentuates red and yellow hues, altering your perception of that priceless Monet.
Compass Spot spotlight at the Monet exhibit at Palazzo Reale, Milan ©Germano Borrelli
Finding the perfect lighting for galleries or a museum display requires a careful balance of science and artistry. To achieve it, many professional curators and designers turn to LED lighting. On a physical level, LED lighting gives off no harmful UV radiation, so it's safer for unstable color pigments like those found in older kinds of paint. Artistically, it's also the purest kind of light, offering the clearest and least color-altering illumination, making it ideal for offering a clear, consistent experience for generations of viewers.
Compass Spot spotlight at The British Music Museum ©Germano Borrelli
While mostly being phased in to replace harmful incandescent lighting, LED fixtures also offer a host of new creative opportunities. Engineers can create colored LEDs, highlighting or diminishing certain colors to create a completely new take on a classic piece. Perhaps, in a future exhibit, visitors will be invited to consider works under shifting light qualities, creating a fluid experience of the artwork as opposed to the staid observation that is traditional.
As technology advances, engineers, designers, and curators will be able to further explore museum lighting techniques that are not only ideal for preserving and displaying artwork, but that also create a new world of artistic possibilities on their own. Your next visit to the Smithsonian may not be to see the work in the limelight, but the limelight itself.
You can explore FLOS architectural designs suitable for museum, store, and gallery displays here.