Illuminating Exhibitions – Crafting Stories with Light

An exhibition space can be more than just a physical location; it can become a magical, otherworldly realm where every piece of art and object on display is brought to life by using light.

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Highlights

The transformation of exhibition space is achieved through the careful use of lighting, which has the power to ignite visitors’ imaginations and transport them into a realm of pure wonder. Art galleries and temporary exhibitions revolve around visual stimulation and telling a story is the charge for all museum lighting experts, whose illumination of treasured works of art is an art form all its own.

Theatricality in Museum Lighting

Just as a theatrical performance unfolds through distinct acts and scenes, a well-designed museum exhibition takes visitors on a journey through carefully crafted sections. Unlike traditional theatre, the audience is not confined to their seats but is instead welcomed onto the stage itself, encouraging active participation within the scene. Three-dimensional objects have the potential to be sculpted by light like theatrical lighting designers sculpt the human body providing opportunities for contrast. 

Designers can choose to darken, emphasize or fill natural shadows created by the lighting depending on the feeling that they want to create. Each section of the exhibition acts as a scene, and the lighting helps guide visitors as they explore. Ultimately, the lighting shapes the narrative of the exhibit

1. Nero: the Man behind the Myth | British Museum - ph. Edward Bishop

Creating atmosphere with Exhibition Lighting

The primary objective of exhibition lighting is to enhance the visual appeal of displayed objects, accentuate graphics, and evoke specific atmospheres that complement the exhibition design. When multiple objects are showcased within a single exhibit, the lighting design must establish a hierarchy by incorporating varying intensities and light levels, thus creating a distinctive rhythm. By utilizing warm or cool light, saturated colours, and experimenting with angles, shadows, and light diffusion, visitors can be immersed in specific contexts and feelings. The lighting quality can either foster an expansive and exploratory ambience or cultivate a more intimate and evocative atmosphere, depending on the desired effect.

2. The Future Starts Here | Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Balancing Conservation and Aesthetics in Museum Lighting

Museum lighting designers face various challenges, one of which is achieving a cohesive atmosphere throughout the exhibition while also providing a distinct feel for each section. A major challenge lies in establishing the right hierarchy among objects, considering that each artwork may have unique lighting requirements. 

For instance, light-sensitive objects such as watercolours, woods, or textiles may be displayed alongside more durable pieces, allowing for different lighting constraints. The role of the lighting designer is to skillfully highlight these objects while ensuring conservation standards are met and the desired atmosphere of the space is maintained. Balancing the technical aspects of preservation with creating a visually engaging experience is a key responsibility in the art of museum lighting design. 

3. Leonardo Da Vinci: A Mind in Motion exhibition | British Library - ph. Robin Clark

Case Study. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

An example where these criteria have been met is the temporary exhibition at the Science Museum in London, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (2015) by DHA Designs. The high-level spotlights on tracks were used to highlight most of the objects and graphics.

Track lighting is a natural choice for an art museum because it provides many points of illumination that can all be individually controlled. In certain areas, lighting was seamlessly integrated into showcases and setworks to highlight smaller objects and create a captivating atmosphere and sense of drama. The strategic use of blue-coloured light and cool white light further enhanced the experience, evoking a feeling of being in outer space. 

4. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age | Science Museum, London
5. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age | Science Museum, London

Conclusion

While the artefacts and display objects found in museums should be the main focus of any exhibit, how their actual story is told can make or break the exhibit. If the lighting doesn’t provide the necessary raw data, visitors won’t enjoy those experiences. Today though, we have several technologies that can be used to help make museum storytelling more immersive. Lighting can tell a cohesive story between sections and set the right character for the message to be conveyed. 

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