Skip to main content

Good lighting matters

Lighting is one of those things often left to the end of a project, or worse, left unaddressed completely. In very basic terms, if you don’t have good lighting, you don’t have a good exhibit. Good lighting directs your eye, focuses your attention and can help create an environment visitors want to explore. Think about the difference between the lighting in a fast food restaurant and an upscale bistro. Are they different? Bet your bouillabaisse they are! Fast food joints have bright, harsh, often cold lighting to get you in and out as fast as possible whereas an upscale bistro will have soft warm lighting to help create an intimate space more conducive to lingering. If this is all true, then why is exhibit lighting often an afterthought?

Most people understand why money needs to be spent on content development, or photography, or AV interactives because these things are fairly tangible, and lets face it, more fun. But for some people, it is harder to explain the importance of good lighting and justify its cost. This is why a good lighting consultant is worth their weight in gold and why they should be brought in early in the design process so that appropriate lighting techniques are explored and developed along with the exhibits. These consultants can help you develop an overall lighting plan and determine the type and number of fixtures you will require based on the needs of your exhibit and the sensitivity of your collections. For many of our museum projects, LEDs are a great choice because of their energy efficiency, their long life spans, and, because they don’t contain harmful substances like mercury, they are easier to recycle when they reach end of life.

Options are good

We are advocates for flexibility in our exhibit work and that often extends into our lighting choices as well. No doubt that some exhibits, or at least special features within an exhibit will require unique lighting solutions but in many places, track lighting can be a great option. Tracks will accept a variety of light fixtures and will allow you to move lights, or even tracks, around to suit your exhibits as they evolve and change over time.

Our biggest beefs with lighting

Nothing (in the exhibit world) is more heartbreaking than investing in great lighting only to have the beautiful effects you sweated over ruined because the work lights are always left on. Work lights are important when cleaning or maintaining your gallery but that’s it, they should be off when not specifically needed. One of the key services a lighting consultant can offer is ensuring your exhibit lights and your house lights are on different circuits, controlled by separate, clearly marked switches. Another disappointment is returning to an exhibit after opening day to find that no one is replacing burnt out lights. Good maintenance cannot be stressed enough. We have found these two simple things are imperative to the successful lighting of an exhibit.

Seeing is believing

Still having trouble visualizing the importance of good lighting? Check out a wonderful Youtube video made for The Smithsonian American Art Museum: