Museum Lighting


CB Mods
At charcs request, and my own personal interest, I present this post on museums and their lighting.

I am a frequent patron of museums. Increasingly, I have seen alot more exhibits become theatrical and downright "entertainment" themed in their lighting. An example that immediatly comes to mind is the USS Monitor Center at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, VA. The first hand is experience is incredible. The lighting designer takes you on a ride from the moment you enter the exhibit. The atmosphere goes from the rolling cold ocean floor, to the heated battle, to a recreation of the interior on the ship, and then into the focused areas on the artifact exhibit. Source 4 products, strips, intels, gobo rotators, etc are everywhere. It's an impressive lighting display, but the exhibit itself was also very well done and educational. I recommend it both for its lighting and its historical information.

Another example is in Detroit at the Museum of African American history. Their permamnent exhibit on the history of African Americans in America and Detroit also had very impressive lighting that contributed greatly to the feel of the timeperiods presented. From the terrifying low-light levels in the holds of the slave ship, to the recreation of 1960's Detroit, the designer mixed theatrical and architectural fixtures for what was, again, a very impressive and well done exhibit.

Museum lighting has interested me for some time: it combines my two favorite things. I'm interested in knowing more. Are there books on the subject? Who are the leaders in this market? Do any schools offer programs in museum lighting? Are there companies that might do internships? It's an area of interest, and I'm curious if anyone here has had contact with it.


Well-Known Member
The Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Amazing lighting. Loads of source fours and source four pars in a variety of colors, many with City Theatrical Beam Benders because they're shooting out from up inside central sections of drop ceiling that give way to black-painted pipes so that the source fours can shoot over the edge of the drop ceiling. Also, in the lobby area, there are two intelligent lights (didn't have time to check for model) that have rotating gobos that put the gobos on different spots on the floor and rotate them. The gobos are famous quotes about espionage. It's awesome. The intelligent lights in the lobby are painted a tan color to blend in with the architecture of the lobby.

Besides, the museum is now my favorite in DC (albeit expensive) because I find anything about espionage to be very interesting. The cold war stuff is, of course, the best.


CB Mods
Hey, I've been there too. Last year on spring break me and a bunch of friends did this big DC-Baltimore-Williamsburg museum/vacation trip. Some people go to Cancun, get drunk and have their passport stolen, I do educational things. Nerd and proud.


Senior Team
Senior Team
Premium Member
I know of one person with a theatre background that has done some museum stuff. He has done exhibits at both the field museum and the Museum of science and industry in Chicago. He has an undergrad in architectural and a MFA in lighting design, so he fits in very well to that mold. Most places that do museums are architectural lighting firms, so star googling that.


Active Member
I'm actually from the DC area, and yes, the spy museum is pretty sweet.

But even moreso is the new Newseum. It's a pity I can't find a picture online, and I only saw it passing by in a car a few weeks ago, but it is fully loaded. Conservatively, I saw something like 20-30 ML's (no idea at all at the make, way too far away) in the main atrium, not to mention however many LED's/architectural lights/whatever. It's not open yet, but it looks ri-diculous.


Active Member
I recently say the Body Worlds 2 in the bay area. I was impressed by all of the lighting. They had tons of source fours lighting up each case and in one place, there was some thing that was white and very smooth looking, and it seemed to be stretched out over one area. I can't really describe it, but they were lighting it up with some sort of mover that I couldn't find the model, but they had a glass gobos in them, and they looked really cool.


Active Member
Yea, unfortunately still can't see any pics of the setup on the website. The front wall of it is all glass, so you can see in to see the ML's, but I couldn't find any good pics on the site. They have it lit with some architectural colors at night and it looks cool, but didn't see any of the intels.

edit: Just cause I'm from the DC area and I've been to all of these, I can also say that the Native American Museum (which in my museum is pure crap...what a wasted opportunity) is lit by a ton of source fours, both in the atrium (huge 4-story tall cylindrical area, I can only assume the lights at the top are s4's low degs), and in a lot of exhibits projecting gobos.


Well-Known Member
edit: Just cause I'm from the DC area and I've been to all of these, I can also say that the Native American Museum (which in my museum is pure crap...what a wasted opportunity) is lit by a ton of source fours, both in the atrium (huge 4-story tall cylindrical area, I can only assume the lights at the top are s4's low degs), and in a lot of exhibits projecting gobos.

The National Museum of the American Indian is pretty sweet. I went there as an extra credit thing for my Native American Anthropology class, and I could really appreciate the exhibits after taking the class and learning alot about their cultures. If you go, start at the top, with the really sweet "projection-in-the-round" that is just technically amazing - it's one of those things where there's so many things happening that you have to really pay attention in all directions (sometimes even behind you) to notice them all. Also, I think that the building is architecturally amazing, inside and out.


Active Member
Eugh...I found it really sparse and so obsessed with being hip, cool, wowzer-ing, colorful, that it taught me nothing. Far too few artifacts, dioramas, etc., far too many quotations blown up huge and printed on photo-printed walls. You can incorporate modern design and aesthetics into museums all you like, but you shouldn't use them to overinflate a weak informational base.

That being said, because I feel guilty for totally derailing, the National Building Museum (one of the most incredible buildings I've been in) has a huge central atrium/space going up 5 stories, which they use for a lot of events. Hundreds upon hundreds of source fours, if I remember correctly.


Active Member
This was actually an older topic than I thought, but I just saw a new picture of the Newseum in the Washington Post and remembered this topic. They definitely have some intels in the lobby, who knows what they're doing.



Senior Team Emeritus
Premium Member
lots of books have sections on museum both theater and archectural lighting based. The IESNA/NECA I'm sure would be a prime source for papers and articles on the subject & have by now lots of stuff on the subject.

Done some looking at museums and noting myself, much less installs at times. Even at one point helped someone on and off line on the Phillips Forum come up with a cool moon light effect in the past which Wolf helped with.

A sampling of books might be:
-Building for the Arts, a Guidebook for the Planning and Design of Cultural Facilities
-Museum and Art Gallery Lighting, (100pp) ISBN: 0-87995-132-X IESNA #RP-30-96
-Lighting For Historic Buildings, by Roger W. Moss; The Preservation Press. Washington D.C. 1988 pp 11-27
-The Beauty of Light, by Ben Bova; John Wiley & Sons, Inc. N.Y. 1988

I also have a copy I'll post of a source/outline I attended while at school I don't think otherwise availale below in posting since I don't think it is otherwise out there. Museum lighting design... really cool, a field I will have loved to do more of other than lobby lighting for the theater which I did a lot of in the past but wasn't the same.

Museum and Gallery Lighting: A Debate Between Natural and Artificial Light

Outline of Speech from Unknown Author. - Advanced Lighting Design Illinois State University. c.1994
Also: Lighting Dimensions, Jan. 1989 “Museum Daylighting” by Barry H. Slinker

Museum and Gallery Lighting: A Debate Between Natural and Artificial Light
I. History of Museum Lighting:
A. 15th Century - Museums Began to Exhibit Artwork.
1. Used natural lighting in the beginning
2. 1879 - Edison’s electric light was available for use.
B. Transition to Electric Lighting:
1. Post WWII - tendency to use only a central courtyard, w/artificially lit galleries (Example: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
2. Many galleries were void of natural light at this time.
3. Last 10 years, museums combine daylight, supplemented with electric light. (Example: Art Institute of Chicago; new wing at the Louvre)
III. Sides of the Issue:
A. Daylight
1. Exposes natural elements of artwork, especially southern “warm” light.
2. Sunlight and UV rays damage paintings - they crack, fade, discolor, and shrink. Art is best preserved in the dark, but unable to be seen like this. Northern “blue” light distorts the reception of color and texture.
B. Electric Light:
1. Less UV rays.
2. Natural elements of artwork cannot be fully revealed. Psychological and emotional elements are lessened.
IV. Trends in Modern Museum Lighting:
A. Laminated Laylight - glass panels on the ceiling. Skylights with membranes which filter out UV rays.
B. Tempered Glass: reflects UV rays away from direct contact with artwork.
C. Adjustable Shutters: moderate the amount of light.
D. Bouncing Light off Interior Surfaces: reduces UV rays. Painted walls reflect only
5-10% of UV rays. Double bouncing reduces the UV to visible light ratio to under artificial sources’ ratios.
V. Example of Modern Museum Lighting:
A. Art Institute of Chicago - 1984 renovations.
1. Objective
a. To improve natural and artificial lighting
b. To conserve energy
c. To replace glass roof
2. Reduced Glass in Roof by 60%. For control of temperature and humidity. Single glazed glass in roof was replaced by double - glazed with a framed metal roof. Heat gain was reduced by 80%. Roof combined vision glass (clear) and spandrel glass (opaque). 99% of UV rays were filtered out.
3. Laylights (Sky Light) Installed. Each laylight composed of 2 plastic and 2 glass layers. Reduced UV ratio while allowing in the visible spectrum. Acrylic prismatic lenses distribute light evenly on the walls.
4. Light had to be reduced to 40 fc., the maximum amount that does not cause damage. In the winter, the galleries receive only about 8 fc.

5. Track lighting below laylight and fluorescents above them provide a smooth transition from natural to artificial light.
6. 1/3 of the height of the museum is now between the roof and the laylights. Light is given room to bounce before entering the space. Laylights soften the light further to give aesthetic warmth.
B. Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe.
1. Incorporates feel for surrounding environment and nature with Southwest Indian Art.
2. “Warm” Southern Light Allowed Through Steppes of Glass Rows. Louvers are raised in the summer, lowered in the winter.. These bounce the sunlight off the ceiling to reduce UV rays.
3. Clear Double-Glazed Glass in Skylights and Windows use Daylight Spectrum.
4. Light in the space responds to change in the weather and sky.
C. Menil Collection in Huston (1987 Renovations)
1. Dominique de Menil - wanted “Lively light”, preventing a cold view of art. Light source and manipulation is considered artwork as well in this space.
2. Roof is a metal grid with trusses thin enough to prevent shadows.
3. Skylights have double-layered glass. Bottom layer is UV filtered lamination. Top layer is reflective of incoming light.
4. trusses made of “leaves”, which hang at an angle from trusses. Bottom of leaves are finished with a granular compound, which disperses light reflected more evenly. Top sides are polished to bounce light out of the space.
5. Air ducts take out heat; louvers bounce UV rays out of the space before they enter.
6. Light in gallery sensitive to changes in weather and time.
7. System of aluminum panels can be used, fitting them into channels on the skylights, to eliminate daylight totally.
8. Side windows are like skylights, without the reflective panes. Curators plan to install fabric frames which pivot to bounce light as it enters the windows. Blinds will be installed to obscure exterior views.

D. The debate of how much light is too much verses preservation is still going on. On one hand the less light there is, the more chance the colors will not fade thus preserving the work for future generations
1. Without proper lighting, there is no art, or at least what was done is not as visible and thus not available to be appreciated as well.
2. Other than the light the work was originally done in, or intended for, there is no happy medium between the preservation and the spotlight.
3. Key example to this is, the lighting in some of the chapels and cathedrals in Florence, Italy. In an effort to raise money, and prevent too much light from falling on the artwork, much of the lighting is provided in the “penny-alley cinema arcade” style. The artwork is lit if at all to an absolute minimum until you drop a coin into the slot, then it is lit (rather badly) by halogen work lights or the like for a few moments. In between the flashing lights and the short duration of the all too white carbon arc like light, the artwork is washed out. The harsh whiteness of the work-light I am sure cancels out any preservation the work gets by being dark also. In these places, natural light is not available much due to the building construction, artificial light had to be available, but also over the centuries has also contributed soot to darken the work it was showing. Given the lack of natural light, proper lighting for these places must be equal to the torch, candle and wale oil lantern oil light of the day, dim but golden to properly show off the work.
“The absolute presentation of artwork would dictate that it be kept in the dark, deterioration being directly proportional to the lengeh and intensity of exposure.” But “becaise accirate color rendition is important for viewing art, it is better to use a full spectrum source such as sunlight and filter out the ultraviolet light.”
“The correct formula for daylighting and natural lighting is yet to be established”. - Barry H Slinker

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Well-Known Member
i checked out the spy museum a while back when it first opened. They movers they had were studio spot 250's. I really liked how they had it all layed out. It was so full of facts and things, it seemed to never end. If you are planning to go your better off either divoting an entire day to walking through it, or span it across multiple days and fly through the parts you first saw to check out the rest.

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