Lux glorious

The diversity of lighting needed to create impressive galleries and exhibitions is no mean feat. José Manser talks to exhibition designers who have hit the mark

For some years now, the type of lighting outlet available to those engaged in the cultural market of galleries and exhibitions has been getting smaller in scale and infinitely more sophisticated in its technical capabilities. Miniaturisation has in many cases removed the light source from public view almost completely, enabling the designer to create wonderful lighting effects apparently out of thin air with barely an obtrusive fitting in sight.

All the same, as Concord Sylvania design director Janet Turner is quick to point out, the light tracks of yesteryear with their easily re-sited or re-angled spots are far from obsolete. “The flexibility you can achieve with this sort of lighting is invaluable for places housing changing exhibitions,” she says. Turner should know. After many years in the business, her overview of the lighting scene extends way beyond her own job, and she speaks authoritatively of developments which have occurred in recent years and which are manifest in the products of other companies as well as her own.

These include dichroic lamps which screen most of the ultra-violet rays from a light source and are suitable for exhibitions of fine art. Slightly less efficient than the UV filter attached to the fitting (which has been available for a long time), these new integral lamps are nevertheless an important development. Fibre optics, cool in operation, easily accessible and unobtrusive, obviate the need for tracking and are invaluable in certain situations; though they are perhaps not so effective in places where there is a high ambient light level with which they must compete. And then there are the low- energy lamps which are fine in cases where colour rendition is not so important, but no good in, for instance, fine art exhibitions, where colour distortion constitutes an inhibiting factor. Particularly suitable for this type of application are fittings where the light beam can be shuttered to frame up an item or detail.

Mark Rowling, technical director of Erco Lighting, endorses Turner’s description of current developments, and adds: “When it’s a question of delicate and valuable objects, the generally held opinion is, if you can see it, it is being damaged.” So where does this put lighting? “It means that kilo lux hours per year should be rationed. When visitors are absent, the light should be off, and when cleaners are at work, only the floor should be lit. This is the practice in the best galleries and it means that control systems are becoming more important and technically refined,” says Rowling.

Those in charge of museums and galleries are increasingly aware of these developments, and of the enormous contribution light can make to their displays. It shows in these recent projects.

The confident use of lighting as a positive element in an interior is perfectly demonstrated by Ben Kelly’s work in the new Basement gallery at the Science Museum. Renowned for tackling unprepossessing sites with panache and flair, Kelly has (with the help of other designers who worked on individual areas) transformed a dim, concrete-walled space deep in the bowels of the museum into a childrens gallery where the lights sparkle and glow.

Faced with a low budget and this daunting basement, he has characteristically turned adversity into advantage without resource to any of the effete furnishings and finishes which tend to be invoked on such occasions. This is a gutsy job where such niceties as lined walls, polished floors and – above all – designer light fittings are non-starters.

So it is robust watertight pendants from lighting company Coughtrie, boasting an industrial ethos which suits their uncompromising location, which light the main spaces. Square, wall-mounted light fixtures from the same family are mounted over the wash basins and lavatories in the cloakrooms. One of the museum’s specific requirements was that all lamps should be low- energy to reduce running costs, so these are all fuelled by fluorescent lamps. The pendants’ sparkle is boosted in the main circulation route by a glow from fluorescent tubes. These have specifically designed baffles which direct the light glow on to white painted areas of the dominant concrete structure, thus boosting even further the general level of ambient light.

With all this sparkle and glow, and even a tranche of natural daylight introduced near the picnic area, the Basement is an appropriately cheerful place. But Kelly has taken his design a stage further. To have hidden the electric conduits within those concrete walls would have taken an inordinate amount of time – and cost. So he has featured them in the design. “We did drawings showing the layout of cable routes, and specified galvanised conduits for the main lighting cable, with those for the mineral insulated emergency cabling in red. It was all beautifully executed by the electrician Platt and Davies”, he says. It is a nice device which contributes yet one more striking feature to what started out as a cruelly rebarbative place. ©

In the Nelson Gallery which was recently installed at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, design group 3D Concept (the company started many years ago by the late James Gardner), had a problem which is common in such situations. “There are many valuable but fragile objects in the exhibition,” says designer Martin Pyant, “things like Nelson’s letters, books, paintings, all organic material which could not withstand lux levels higher than 50. On the other hand, we had a showcase of

Nelson’s trophies, made of gold and silver, and a large 3m-high fibreglass model of Nelson’s head which needed to be enhanced and dramatised. We had to reconcile the two requirements.” The solution was to light such delicate objects as hand-coloured Rowlandson and Cruickshank prints – which are in showcases – by fluorescent sources masked in a neutral density film (which is relatively inexpensive), while similarly sensitive but wall-mounted bits are lit by spotlights on dimmers (a more expensive option). Ambient lighting had to be of a low level and was achieved by track-mounted spots, and features such as

Nelson’s head were picked out by low-voltage spots or, in the case of items in showcases such as trophies, by low-voltage spots within the case. So the overall scene is generally crepuscular, but with dramatic pools of stronger light. And as Martin Pyant points out, the most vulnerable exhibits are rotated every three months to remove them from harm, which even these carefully calculated bouts of light will inflict.

The George III Gallery at the Science Museum is still and serene and comes as a pleasant relief from many of the other galleries in that increasingly frenetic and hands-on place. There are no hands on anything here. Every item in George III’s precious collection of scientific instruments – made at the time when the UK was changing from an agricultural to an industrial society – is protected by specially designed glass showcases, some free-standing, some wall-mounted.

Nevertheless, and this is no more than would be expected from that doyen of exhibition designers, architect Alan Irvine, these fine objects are far more easily assimilated and enjoyed than many a touchy-feely exhibit elsewhere. And there is ample space so visitors can walk around the objects in central free-standing cases, viewing them from all sides.

The lighting, in which Irvine is something of a specialist, is unobtrusive: simple, yet brilliantly effective, in that it enhances the feeling of understanding and the close relationship with the artefacts on view, which is surely what exhibition design should be about. Ambient light comes from low wattage, long-life reflector lamps in the ceiling. Fortuitously, the objects in this particular collection don’t need to be protected from high lux levels. So in the small free-standing showcases, low-voltage spots bathe them with light from several directions. As Irvine explains, several light sources are used because they reveal the different facets of an object, dramatising and enhancing its overall interest. In the large cases, both free-standing and wall-mounted, there are fluorescent tubes behind mini-louvred glass reflectors which ensure light is directed at and reveals every detail of the historic exhibits within, rather than at the spectator. All light outlets were supplied by Concord Sylvania.

There are no gimmicks here. The showcases are unassertive, the graphics unequivocal. The lighting is unobtrusive. Classicism at its best, this is blissfully remote from the jiggery pokery wont to infest lesser brands of exhibition design.

Architect Stanton Williams designed the exhibition 900 Years – The Restoration of Westminster Abbey, which ran last summer and autumn at St Margaret’s church in Westminster.

Working with lighting designer John Johnson, the practice took a characteristically professional approach which fulfilled the client’s brief without compromising the standards of exhibition design. Since no part of the exhibition must impinge upon the fabric of this old church which is much used by MPs, Stanton Williams removed all the pews and chandeliers, and then built a 7m-high, free-standing rectangular wooden structure within the north aisle. It had wooden walls which concealed the memorial tablets lining the walls of the church, a wooden floor, and was topped by wooden ribs. With the space below divided into five bays (one for each period depicted) by transparent steel-framed partitions, all lighting was concentrated on tracks set into the central rib above each bay. Virtually invisible to the exhibition visitor below, this was the simplest lighting scheme imaginable and a perfect demonstration of the contemporary “look, no hands” approach to lighting. Torch 75 low-voltage spots from Concord Sylvania were carefully directed on to the fabulous objects in the glass showcase which ran the length of one wall, and on to those such as the two great angels and the alabaster and marble model of Philippa of Hainault’s tomb, which are mounted on plinths and the partitions. The 300 lux level of light achieved for such wondrous and sturdy objects as these – often three or four lamps are directed towards one object – would have threatened the well-being of the drawings on show. So Stanton Williams confined all such vulnerable exhibits to just one of the five bays. No spots were directed towards this area, and the light level was reduced to a safe 50 lux.

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