Seeing the Light:
Museum Lighting Techniques and Technologies

November 2, 2011 No Comments

When the National Museum of American Jewish History opened in Philadelphia late last year, it had taken years to raise the funds to create what would become one of the newest attractions in the city’s famed historic district. Just a short walk from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the museum is using some of the latest technology to tell the story of the American Jewish experience in its new 100,000-square-foot space. One of the main, most standout features at the museum these days is an LED light installation by media artist Ben Rubin called “Beacon.” The enormous display sits atop the museum’s glass façade on the fifth floor, overlooking a busy intersection. It can be seen for several blocks.
Using 2,688 LED nodes arranged on seven parallel mesh panels – each 64 inches wide, 96 inches high and spaced 16 inches apart – the piece yields an overall depth of 96 inches. “The sculpture’s undulating luminous forms are drawn directly from more than 5,000 pages of the Talmud, one of the central texts of Judaism,” said Jay Nachman, a spokesperson for the museum.
The artist has essentially transformed each Talmudic page into a graphic and programmed the pages to move in a fluid sequence through the installation’s seven planes of light. Its name, “Beacon,” said Nachman, suggests a light that shows the way to the museum and also to the fundamental values of freedom, justice and the law. In a word, the sculpture embodies the entire mission of the destination, while being a popular attraction for tourists from all over the world.

Spotlighting Liberty and Special Events

Just footsteps away from the National Museum of Jewish American History is the sprawling National Constitution Center, where several types of lighting illuminate similar notions of freedom using LED, fluorescent, incandescent and metal halide technology. One of the most spectacular examples of lighting is during the “We the People” presentation that transforms an ordinary speech into a multimedia experience with energy efficiency and environmental friendliness in mind.
“We are now using LED lamps in many areas, including our exhibition spaces and museum store,” said Joe Rabena, senior director of operations at the center. “We replaced many of our fluorescent lamps with new high-energy, low-wattage, longer-life replacement lamps. These improvements have lessened our carbon footprint, lowered our overall energy usage and helped us save in building operations. We also recently upgraded our projectors – the ones we now use implement LED and laser technology. We installed these in our main exhibition, ‘The Story of We the People.’ These projectors do not use mercury in their lamps and can simply be discarded after their lifespan, which is anticipated to be 20,000 hours.” During the center’s “Freedom Rising” production, 15 Vari lights with up to 50 different custom templates have also been installed for extensive programming in order to bring the story of the Constitution to life. “This all takes place in our Kimmel Theater, where projection is seen on the floor, in the audience and on 360-degree screens,” said Nora Berger-Green, the center’s director of theater programs. “The dramatic lighting allows the audience to be transported in time and it echoes the moods and emotions of the performers telling the stories of ‘We the People.’”
Lighting throughout each of the exhibition galleries, which encompasses 75,785 square feet within a total of 160,000 public square feet, is also important here. Since none of the galleries have natural light, a good lighting scheme is both a necessary and an aesthetic part of the visitor experience.
“Artifacts need to be lit so visitors can view them properly while being mindful of the light levels required for preservation,” explained Stephanie Reyer, the center’s vice president of exhibitions. “Similarly, text panels and labels – often very close to artifacts – need to be lit so visitors can easily read them. Lighting must also complement video and interactive media pieces, which give off their own bright light that can be jarring to the eyes.”
She said lighting is also used to subtly direct visitors along a desired path or to draw them into areas of an exhibition that they might otherwise pass over. “A good lighting scheme balances all of these needs to create a seamless, comfortable and impactful experience for the visitor,” Reyer said.
Lighting not only enhances storytelling, but also spotlights important artifacts. “Lighting is also used to reflect the mood of an exhibition,” admitted Reyer. “Where lights are aimed, the balance between ambient and spotlighting, and the use of colored gel inserts – or GOBOs – can activate a space by creating drama and suspense, or by inspiring reflection and tranquility. All of this adds an emotional layer to exhibitions and the stories they convey, much like in film or theater.”
Because the center also hosts events throughout the year, lighting is used day and night for a variety of groups hosting dinners and dances and fundraisers and speeches. “The walls serve as a neutral canvas for up-lighting, GOBOs and other effects,” said Kellie Brielmaier, director of facility rentals at the center. “Particularly in a modern space such as ours, lighting can add warmth and make an event feel more intimate.”
She said GOBOs are an especially useful and attractive alternative to signage and plasma screens for branding and logo recognition. “We also offer a special lighting effect – created exclusively for the center by our preferred lighting and A/V vendor Advanced Staging – called ‘Light Panels,’ ” she said. “Strips of white fabric are draped from permanent brackets along our 40-foot glass windows and then up-lit with LED lights for a dramatic effect.”

The Art of the Matter

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH), a variety of lighting is also used to spotlight a variety of art forms – from paintings and textiles to sculpture and multimedia works.
“The MFAH uses many types of lighting – incandescent, low voltage, florescent, LED, fiber optics and even just natural light,” said Bill Cochrane, MFAH’s exhibition designer. “Large paintings are often lit using a combination of natural light and incandescent light. Our Pre-Columbian objects are currently lit using LED lights.”
The museum also boasts stain-glass windows that are backlit using fluorescent fixtures. “An exhibition of 18th-century French art containing several manuscripts and many small, decorative art objects, all extremely light sensitive, are lit using just fiber-optic lights,” said Cochran. “We always try to use the type of light that will best enhance the art on display.”
The latest technology is also being implemented into several exhibitions to be opened in the coming years.
“Toshiba has recently donated some of the nation’s most innovative LED lamps to the MFAH to illuminate the new ‘Arts of Japan’ gallery slated to open in February 2012,” said Valerie Greiner, MFAH’s director of special gifts. “New lighting by Toshiba is also being tested in other parts of the museum, including the lobby of the Caroline Wiess Law building in a space designed by Mies van der Rohe.”
She said not only are the lights proving to be long lasting and energy efficient, but they will help the museum conserve energy and enjoy lower operating costs. “The museum plans to partner with Toshiba to incorporate LED lights into other exhibition spaces,” Greiner said.
With 160,000 square feet of exhibition space, the museum also considers how best to showcase objects that could get lost in the larger presentations. “How objects are lit often affects one’s perception of the art being viewed,” explained Cochrane. “A painting spotlighted in a dark room will look and feel completely different than it would if was lit with washes of light in a brightly illuminated gallery. Angles of light are important, too. A raking light close to a painting’s surface can create an exaggerated series of bright peaks and shadow-filled valleys. A more direct and diffused light can make the same painting appear more colorful and vibrant. Lighting becomes an integral tool to help create the environments in which stories are told.”
It also sets the tone for special events in the shadow of world-famous art.
“Light conveys a specific mood and triggers emotions that enhance the ultimate experience for the guest,” said MFAH’s Director of Special Events Linda Kuykendall. “We provide the opportunity for each individual to see the artwork under optimum viewing so that details, technique, colors and textures may be appreciated. The guest leaves with a visual education of the art and gains a lifetime memory of their personal experience at the museum.”

When Lighting Helps Tell a Story

Lighting can also create a standard, as with incandescent track lighting that’s common in many museums like the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. It’s something guests may come to expect and appreciate.
“Lighting is one of the most important and least-understood aspects of exhibition work, in my opinion,” said Melissa Leventon the museum’s consulting curator. “It’s akin to theatrical lighting, but is much more subtle because the audience is not at a distance from the scene.”
She admitted that one goal is usually to light the object so that its proper colors can be seen, which usually requires a fair amount of white light.
“Museum lighting also has to conform to accepted standards for light exposure, which, for light-sensitive materials like textiles, prints, drawings and photographs, are often quite restrictive,” said Leventon. But within those parameters there can be a lot of room for creativity for a museum like this one, with an exhibition gallery of 2,000 square feet.
“Lighting sets mood, and its colors and intensity will interact with the wall colors and the object colors, often in wonderful ways,” said the curator. “We also use light to direct the viewer’s attention to something specific, or to help conceal something we don’t want to highlight.”
Leventon explained that the “right” lighting is also key to making sure three-dimensional objects look properly three-dimensional. “Designers have all sorts of tools – including filters, colored gel, different types of fixtures (LED, incandescent, halogen, fiber optics, etc.) – to help them get the effects they want,” she said. “From the curatorial point of view, the objects and the text are the primary means of telling the story; the lighting should support them.”

Capturing a Kid’s Attention in a Digital Age

Last summer, Underland opened at the Providence Children’s Museum in the children’s garden. The exhibit not only taught young visitors about what really goes on underground, but it was a way for Exhibit Designer Chris Sancomb to explore new ways to create darkness from, ironically, light.
“The goal was to create an earthy, underground aesthethic,” said Megan Fischer, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island museum. Sancomb created intricate chandeliers – using found tree roots – that were wired with LED lights. “They look like roots poking in from above ground and illuminate the exhibit with a gentle, twinkling light,” described Fischer, “and have been quite popular with our visitors.”
More than anything else, lighting helps designers like Sancomb create unique atmospheres for many of the museum’s play and learning environments – something that’s becoming increasingly important as younger children become more accustomed to digital and multimedia presentations. For many kids, having an on and off button is key to grabbing their attention. The main demographic for this museum? Kids ages 1 to 11 and their families.
“Our ‘Coming to Rhode Island’ exhibit, also known as the ‘time tunnel,’ is a time- traveling adventure through state history that celebrates cultural diversity and the stories, customs and objects of different immigrant groups,” said Fischer. “Visitors learn about four real immigrants whose families came from different countries, for different reasons, at different points in time.”
The lighting in the tunnel – featuring a neon entryway and rope lights – creates the effect of going back in time. “And together, the four galleries show change in lighting over time – a wick holder in 1640, an oil lamp in 1867, a ship’s prism in 1892, and electric lighting in 1961,” she said. “The time tunnel culminates in the ‘Story Center,’ where a backlit wall of photos taken in Rhode Island dramatically illustrates the state’s rich diversity.”

The Effects on Energy and the Environment

At the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., on the outskirts of New York, lighting has become a major topic of discussion. And in the last two years, the center has transitioned 65 percent of its lighting from incandescent to compact fluorescent and LED lighting.
“We have a state-of-the-art lighting control system that allows us to control any of the lighting at any time,” said the center’s Director of Facilities Dennis Hercel. “We set time of day schedules, curtail lighting on low-volume attendance days, and bright sunny days. We can add light on cloudy days and when special events require after-hours light.”
The adaptability, as well as helping curators use the light most effectively, also saves money. “In addition, the LED lights are cutting-edge technology,” admitted Hercel. “They save between $65 and $99 dollars in electrical costs per year, per fixture. This helps us save over $450,000 dollars per year.”
Hercel said the lighting is also essential in showcasing the overall design and details of any exhibit in the 300,000-square-foot space. “The lighting, it’s nuances, brightness, shadows, color temperature and recreation, are the final touches our exhibition designers add,” he said. “It is the final design element that goes into the guest experience. It is the most important factor that the facilities group had to consider when replacing the incandescent lighting with the new color-corrected CFL or LED lighting. The wrong temperature light could seriously impact the guest’s impression and ruin all of the design work that went into that exhibition.” -

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