Follow up: Museum Lighting

I recently wrote about a visit I made to Proa, a contemporary art space in Buenos Aires, and included images of the striking ceiling. As you can see in this photo, there’s quite a contrast between the old pillars in the building and the very modern feeling fluorescent lighting.

A reader wondered if American museums will ever try lighting contemporary art this way. There are many ways to address this question and one, for starters, is to explore when and why fluorescents are used. I spoke with Terry Schaeffer in LACMA’s Conservation Center on the subject and she told me that U.S. museums do indeed sometimes use fluorescent lights but that they’re utilized less than tungsten, which is the mainstay, because fluorescents emit more UV light, which can be damaging to objects. The decision to light via fluorescent or tungsten is influenced by three primary factors: conservation requirements (works on paper and costume may be particularly light-sensitive), lighting that ensures a correct representation of the color of an object, and curator preference. Not surprisingly, contemporary curators are more inclined to choose fluorescent lighting, which lends a crisp, blue effect; and curators in fields that study art prior to the modern and contemporary periods most often prefer tungsten, which emits a warmer, cozier feel and evokes the experience of fire light.

Allison Agsten

7 Responses to Follow up: Museum Lighting

  1. mbuitron says:

    What about the sun? A favorite memory came from being on the second floor of the Getty when the ceiling louvers in their skylights moved from one angle to another. For a brief moment there was stripped flash of sunlight that moved across the floor and up the fabric-covered walls. It was a palate-cleansing intermezzo of Robert Irwin amid all that baroque.

  2. Davidsindy says:

    Let’s not forget the wonderful light of the Kimball in Dallas.
    A wonderful use of natural light by a great architect…
    Designed by the American architect Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974), the Museum has won wide acclaim for its classic modern building since its opening in 1972. Kahn’s innovative use of natural light and subtle articulation of space and materials greatly enhance the experience of the art. Kahn envisioned a museum with “the luminosity of silver.” In his design, “narrow slits to the sky” (as he described the skylights) admit natural light, which perforated metal reflectors disperse onto the underside of cycloid-shaped vaults and down the walls. Courtyards, lunettes, and light slots vary the quality and intensity of the light. The building’s gracious proportions, fine craftsmanship, and beautiful landscaping add further to the sense of serenity and restraint. (From the museum website)

  3. Allison Agsten says:

    That sounds like a pretty inspiring moment you had at the Getty! If you like natural lighting, you might want to check out BCAM, if you haven’t already. The third floor galleries come alive with sunlight. In order to protect the works of art, as well as to ensure optimal viewing conditions, the roof system captures northern light and controls the intensity of that light with automatically activated rollershades. Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog and Cracked Egg (Red) seem especially dazzling in this environment.

  4. Thanks for this post! An interesting angle on the conversation that I hadn’t thought much about before. Keep up the good work. You guys are on our (very short) blog roll.

  5. marshall says:

    I’ve always liked combination lighting in museums. The Brewery Project had a combo of banks of flourescent lighting providing general lighting with hanging tracks for halogen floods.

  6. krwlos1 says:

    this discussion on lighting reminds me of an installation i just saw last week at the walker art center in minneopolis, where the fluorescent lights of dan flavin actually ARE the art.

  7. john roberts says:

    Aside from the Dan Flavin stuff, which is great minimalist work, it is flourescent lighting…

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