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The art of museum lighting

Galleries and museums call for a depth of visual experience, where lighting is paramount to a visitor’s journey and how they experience the representation of artwork on display. Elements of artificial light such as ambience, CRI, colour temperature and the type of products used, all play an essential role in the accurate representation of work.

From communicating drama in these spaces to creating anticipation upon entrance, lighting is an integral part of the storytelling process. Light can be used to alter the mood of an exhibition space, draw attention to certain points, and to guide a visitor’s journey from entrance to exit.

Director of Museum Exhibition Gallery Services (MEGS), Adam Meredith is no stranger to the story light tells in exhibition spaces and has provided his expertise to internationally acclaimed artists, designers, conservators, curators, galleries and museums for the last 18 years. 

Adam says he was exposed to the impact light has on a space by two things – one being his first role in Technical Operations at Museum Victoria, and the other, his mentor and a fellow lighting designer from Museum Victoria, James Clavering. “This role exposed me to the flexibility of light and how to use it to create an impact and ambience,” he says. It was from here that Adam went on to become Head of Lighting at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) for six years. This role called for Adam to bring lighting concepts to life for over 180 exhibitions, including touring exhibitions for renowned artists, collections and galleries such as Picasso, Dali and Guggenheim.

On creating his award-winning exhibition lighting concept for The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Adam says it was the exhibition development process itself that defined the exhibition lighting into great detail. “I worked closely with Adrian Spikes (Designer), Dylan Banks (Technical Manager) and Aegres (Audiovisual Consultants) on the exhibition and collection objects under the direction of the owner, artists and curatorial team.” Adam says this is where they worked through a lot of concept details and identified the challenges to make them a reality.

Adam recalls just how exciting the project was, as it called for industry experts from all around the country. “WSP Lincolne Scott took care of the electrical engineering, and Don Salisbury of Vision did a great job of the winery, bars, library, public spaces and base building lighting,” he states.

The Long Gallery, The Australian Museum. Photographed by Rosie Hastie Photography

As museums and galleries require display cases for security reasons, Adam explains that fibre optics played a large part in the exhibition. He says that fibre optics will always be present in high-end conservation galleries environments due to the remote light source which offers a controlled light focus to meet the required lux levels per object within the case. “My task with the custom vitrines for MONA included specifying a custom fibre optic system to suit per object. Ensuring that all electrical and object mounts offered the correct lighting angles and identified where shadows would fall to produce details,” he states. The custom display cases ranged from permanent outdoor units with stand-alone climate control and monitoring, visitor interaction and controllable light levels. Adam acknowledges the team worked through many mock-ups and samples to ensure the final installation would offer a seamless look.

As museums are moving away from traditional exhibitions to be more interactive, Adam believes technology plays a significant role in offering more exciting ideas. “We can now mix audiovisual, pixel surfaces and lighting together, which brings a lot of new opportunities for these spaces and its visitors.” 

Galleries are also beginning to adopt more innovative technologies which impact a user’s experience. “The O device was a custom product developed by MONA that allowed visitors to look for object information, artist interviews, owner comments and live music,” Adam remarks. The O device also allowed the lighting at MONA to focus solely on the objects themselves, rather than just the light text panels, (as seen in traditional gallery spaces).

Of course, when it comes to correlated colour temperature (CCT) in gallery spaces, there is an important role to play as this will not only affect the colour appearance of the object or space, but the mood communicated to the visitor. A cooler white can make an exhibit appear crisper and more contemporary, where a warmer CCT, can make a gallery or museum feel cosier and have a more welcoming effect.

Snake (Rainbow Serpent) by Sidney Nolan.
Lange eenzame man by Berlinde De Bruyckere, Museum of Old and New Art. Photographed by Rémi Chauvin

Adam says that where there is no ambient daylight within a space, MEGS will typically stick to a more traditional and warm CCT of 3000K. In spaces that are modern, bright and hold contemporary collections, with elements of daylight, Adam will employ 4000K. “On some occasions, I will use tuneable white when the public use the space during the day through to the night,” he states. When working with an artist, Adam will also allow them the freedom of choosing the CCT once their art has been installed and commissioned. With this advent of CCT; lighting designers possess the ability to create and affect moods, all while dictating the way visitors perceive art and objects. 

On the importance of creating ambience, Adam says it’s about finding the balance of light within the spaces; “highlighting objects, but not overpowering the light-sensitive ones,” he states. “I’ll always offer a small amount of way-finding light throughout the space in a creative way too.” With an ever growing list of creative LED products and control options, Adam believes you can adopt innovative ways to light spaces and include audiovisual as part of the ambience.

For galleries and museums, colour rendering is imperative to ensure objects will appear as ‘natural’ as possible. As most LED manufacturers already offer a high CRI, Adam believes it is essential to have stability and consistency between fixtures. He says after witnessing the manufacturing process; he is now aware of what it takes to produce a good quality luminaire that provides an exceptional CRI. “You can certainly identify where some companies skimp on the quality, and new advanced light metres measure everything on the spectrum, so you know exactly what you have,” he claims. For Adam, he will always ensure the lighting portrays artwork in its most accurate, vivid form and represents the entire colour spectrum as best as possible.

Adam expresses the current trend of lighting hardware moving towards the miniaturisation of equipment, which still offers good optics, control and flexibility. He explains these all work along low voltage tracks, complement low ceiling heights and proves to be more cost-effective. “Like all projects, they adopt their own identity and direction through the design process; then you work within the budget and visual requirements to narrow down an ideal fixture choice,” he remarks. Adam clarifies that the miniaturisation of products allows architects to make ceilings lower in galleries – which creates extra levels and floor space.

As lighting plays a significant role in determining how people experience art in a museum or gallery, Adam likes to create flexible systems that can cater to most requests. With the ability to visually affect the size of a room, or the way users interpret and engage with the art, lighting designers play a pivotal role in the success of a gallery and displayed artwork.  

Bullet Hole by Mat Collishaw, Museum of Old and New Art. Photographed by Rémi Chauvin

For the lighting design of MONA, Adam reveals that it was never going to take a standard approach given the nature of the space; “As Art Processors and Aegres made a custom visitor handheld guide, this allowed for the lighting to be minimal and very object focused.” He explains that working directly with the owner who was not driven by budget, broadened the scope to offer something truly unique. “The approach itself was very precise, as we worked within the collection, this was to identify how every item on display would be lit.” 

MONA also had a 3D gaming model developed that was a custom program to walk through the exhibition design model visually. “It offered a full online catalogue of the art at MONA, which you could select anything in 2D and 3D, with video content running as you walked past it,” Adam states.

On the LED front, Adam believes it is a smooth process to use for the end user once you have designed a suitable and flexible system. He says that lighting will continue to have new products as technology moves forward and that this will continue to bring endless possibilities. 

Adam demonstrated a unique ability in his lighting concept for The Long Gallery at the Australian Museum. Receiving the 2018 Lighting Design Excellence Award from the Illuminating Engineering Society; he says the project showcased the most influential people and objects of Australian history. “Working with Goppion; the Italian showcase company, for the technical requirements and to detail the fabrication was very satisfying, especially when I saw that my efforts were rewarded with a great result,” he explains. 

The museum now has a fibre optics system of over 1,000 focused microlights on the ground floor, offers side and uplights, which has made lighting possible from any location with the Luxam System (a nano and micro-LED fibre optic system). MEGS also incorporated nano recessed uplighting on level 1 vitrines, which eliminated shadows from the track light. With vitrines being lit externally from above, it created some unwanted shadows due to the variety of shaped objects. Adam says by adding a small hidden adjustable uplight, this balanced out shadows, highlighted details and added three dimensional light back within the vitrines.

Adam says that the variety of lighting products available on the market all offer a certain level of accessories for lighting levels, control and comfort. Now with advanced technologies available (laser cut, 3D printing) and the level of fabrication and finishes, you can refine your requirements to have custom accessories tailored to suit that one off application perfectly.

Lighting has evolved from a tool of ensuring safety (compliance of standards and regulations in museums) to become a major discipline which has an impact on energy usage, environmental impact and budgets. Adam explains that although LED has some limitations as a light source, it offers far greater flexibility than traditional light sources. “Lighting design focuses on methods and materials that improve both quality and efficiency, but it is important to keep in mind that more light is not necessarily always going to be better,” he explains.

Lighting design for art and culture allows people to step into the mind and world of the artist. Adam says for him, it’s about chasing the result.

“When the client walks away knowing they are presenting the best version of their object to the public with your concept, that’s the greatest outcome possible.”

He goes on to say that in some instances, people will notice new details on an object that they have never seen before, all thanks to correct lighting. 

When lighting a gallery or museum, Adam must consider a wide range of tools and techniques to balance the light. From varying light beams and angles to the use of wallwashing, mounting height, dimming and track; each aspect must be carefully considered to ensure the perfect outcome is met. He believes that lighting has an exciting future for exhibitions as building architecture and collections are becoming more challenging, and he can’t wait to see where it goes.