Lights, action…

Dramatic lighting can add a touch of theatricality to any museum or gallery project, but designers must be wary of showcasing the technology at the expense of the exhibits. Anna Richardson finds some installations that not only strike the right balance, but also address sustainability

It’s no wonder many lighting designers come from the world of theatre production – the balance between function and theatricality is integral to their work. When designing lighting schemes for museums this balance can prove delicate, as strict conservation requirements, black box versus diffusely daylit spaces, different control issues in public areas and flexibility requirements all influence any design.

’[The balance] depends on the type of exhibition,’ says Gavin Fraser, principal of lighting architect Foto Ma. ’While technically there is a whole pile you need to be aware of, and there’s a palette of tools you use, every job brings its own individual challenges and you’ve got to be able to respond to that.’ The Piers Arts Centre in St Ives, for example, has a fixed collection, so was relatively easy to light, says Fraser. It also has a series of modern white-box spaces, displaying a changing array of art, so the lighting there had to be more ’like designing a machine that has to adapt – designing something upfront that can be functional and change, and has flexibility but is easy to control’.

Theatricality can be fantastic, but you have to justify its use robustly, says Fraser. ’I don’t really like light fittings, and if I’m doing my job properly I’m making the light as discreet as possible.’ Fraser is also a great believer in using controlled daylight, and for the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, housed in a Modernist building, Foto Ma installed an equally minimalist and functional lighting scheme.

Lighting designer Zerlina Hughes is often appointed to create an atmosphere or mood for exhibitions. For Picasso: The Mediterranean Years at London’s Gagosian Gallery, she had to tone down the daylight level for conservation reasons, and wanted to introduce a more spotlit mood to convey the quality of the sun on the work. It was ’dramatic, with carefully chosen shadows that show the form’, says Hughes. Her scheme for The Sacred Made Real at London’s National Gallery, meanwhile, created a dialogue between 3D polychrome sculptures and 2D paintings, bringing out the sculptural qualities of the latter and the painterly qualities of the former.

While the physical spaces of museums get simpler and more pared down, requiring lighting systems that are as unobtrusive as possible, they are also becoming increasingly rich and visually complex, according to Jonathan Howard, lighting designer at DHA Design. Many exhibitions incorporate audiovisual elements, for example.

For the newly refreshed Who Am I? gallery at London’s Science Museum, which is dedicated to genetics, identity and brain science, DHA Design developed a more theatrical scheme.

If an exhibition is made too dramatic, allegations of dumbing down will quickly surface, Howard points out. Who Am I? deals with such a dramatic field, however, that the designers wanted to celebrate some of the excitement which that field generates. ’[The museum] wanted some of that drama to come across, so the way things are lit and items are displayed needed to be eye-catching and provocative,’ says Howard.

But the biggest change is the growing call for energy-saving light sources. Many museums are stipulating low-energy lighting from the start of the design process and some are already testing LED schemes. Foto Ma is working with National Galleries Scotland to test the possibility of using LEDs in all its spaces, while London’s National Gallery has been testing daylight colour temperature LED tracklights from Erco’s Optec range in its Sainsbury Wing.

Hughes, meanwhile has been testing different LED products for the new sculpture wing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and reckons there are a few that are museum standard. ’The quality is good, the colour rendering is getting there, and it’s only going to get better,’ says Hughes. ’The question is when to make the investment, as the products are very expensive.’

Many designers feel that there will always be a place for tungsten lights, but they should be used more sparingly. As for the creative impact of the move towards LEDs, Hughes says, ’I think the technology is improving so much that it doesn’t have to be a compromise – I feel quite positive about that.’

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