6.4. Lights

Mayrand (summarised by Lord and Lord, 2002, p. 411), identifies three functions of light at a museum exhibition:

–        It makes the objects clearly visible;

–        It creates contrasts and makes colours more vivid;

–        It recreates the environment through special emphasis of certain parts of the architectural space.

Using natural light is a truly nature-friendly idea – it saves energy and it is better for our eyes, too. However, it also creates several problems in relation to making an exhibition sustainable. In broad daylight, sunshine is so intense that is damages objects made of organic materials and certain plastics.[19] The source of light also makes a difference. If the ceiling is constructed mainly of glass or any other transparent material, light coming from above creates an open-air atmosphere. If it is the centre of the room that lights focus on, objects in corners or near the walls remain obscure or are completely hidden in the shadow. By the time our eyes accommodate to the light contrast and recognise the objects in the shade, we may have already left this hall. Even if we have a powerful light source, we must cater for artificial light to compensate for the loss of sunshine every afternoon or even in the morning on cloudy days. With global warming, using natural light is no longer viable because intensive sunrays damage the exhibits. Sunrays must be blocked by UV filters and the temperature also has to be regulated.

Museum corridor with large window and photographs on the wall facing it.

6.15. picture: An example of unsuccessful light effects: information panels describing the exhibition remain in the shade while lamps provide unnecessary extra lightning on the wall, facing a series of large windows. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Artificial light is a flexible device: it can be used for the whole exhibition space, a showcase, a group of objects in the case or one single object only. Like a high stand, a spotlight provides a strong emphasis that indicates the importance of the object for the display. A simple row of lamps is cheap, but it radiates boredom, not just light. Some light bulbs are too strong to use, their UV radiation creates much damage, although their effect is dramatic. Fortunately, exhibition lightning is a growing industry, and we have an increasingly appropriate selection of devices to choose from.

Museum wall, with the shadow of an animal skeleton projected on it.

6.16. picture: In the Bakony Museum in Zirc, Hungary, a recently discovered mammoth skeleton is enhanced with exciting light effects. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Lamps have connecting cables that may spoil the overall effect of an exhibition, although visitors do not pay much attention to them. If the use of lamps is inevitable in an installation and they cannot be hidden or placed above the viewing level, they should have a modest shape and colour, in order not to steal the show from the real exhibits.

An exhibition with dull, unattractive light effects.

6.17. picture: This exhibition is placed in a large space which is divided into walking paths. For technical reasons, the lights could not support this arrangement; they could not be placed in the installations. The lamps on the ceiling create no special emphasis; they cover the whole space with sparse, dim light. Labels and information panels are equally grey with nothing being highlighted.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Contemporary working instruments in a well-lit showcase.

6.18. picture: The exhibition hall is dark, the brightly lit niches containing the exhibits are in sharp contrast with the other parts of the hall. This light effect provides a strong accent and increases our appreciation for the objects presented. Hungarian Museum of Ethnography, “„What are Finnish people like?” – An exhibition about the contemporary material and spiritual cultural of Finland. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Interior of an old pharmacy reconstructed in a museum hall.

6.19. picture: Lamps positioned on top of the cupboards puts the whole installation within quotation marks. They indicate that we have not really entered an old pharmacy – this is only a reconstruction at the Semmelweis Museum of Medical History in Budapest. The effects are the same as in Picture 6.16. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

[19] Contemporary museums pay attention to light damage much more than was customary before. As a result, visitors often complain about dimly lit exhibition halls.