Museum Lighting: How Hard Can It Be?

UMOCA’s Chief Preparator, John Burdick, shares insight on the lighting process of the Museum’s many exhibitions.


Museum lighting—how hard can it be?

You screw a lightbulb into a thing, plug the thing into an outlet and aim the light at the artwork, right? Yes … sometimes.Every so often, lighting an exhibition is straightforward. I’ll usually start by hitting each piece with one or two narrow floods, rocking the fixture back and forth until I dial in the sweet spot, and then on to the next one. A few dozen times up and down the ladder, and an hour or two later, I’m done.

 

If the artist is present during the installation, lighting may need a different approach. While some artists are ambivalent to the gallery lighting and they’re fine with leaving it up to me, others may have a very specific way they want their work lit. Some may want to work with me and try different options.

Let’s take the Rona Pondick and Robert Feintuch’s exhibition, Heads, Hands, Feet; Sleeping, Holding, Dreaming, Dying, for example.

The installation of the art was pretty typical:

  • Hang a piece
  • Maybe raise it an inch
  • Move a pedestal to the right by one foot
  • Move it back a few inches
  • And done

Pondick and Feintuch had a vision about the placement of each piece and their relationships to each other, but it went smoothly and quickly. Once all the work was in place, the artists left for the day, and I decided to get started with the lighting. I took the standard approach, hitting each painting with a single narrow-flood and each sculpture with two narrow-floods. I lit the floor in between the pedestals with some lower wattage floods. I knew there would be some tweaking when Pondick and Feintuch arrived the next morning, but I was excited for them to see how close to perfect I had gotten. I was prepared to hear all about how amazing I was.

Well, the lighting in the exhibition was all wrong.

Pondick and Feintuch felt that the gallery was too bright and evenly lit, so we spent the next three or four hours completely reworking the lighting plan. We started by removing all the light from the floor and adjusting the aim on Feintuch’s paintings to reduce the amount of light on the surrounding wall. Lighting Pondick’s sculptures took the most work. Originally, each piece was lit from two sides in an attempt to reduce the shadows, but this caused some of the detail in the work to be lost. We discovered that hitting with two lights from the same angle helped to bring that detail back. The real trick, though, was changing some of the lamps from LED narrow-floods to Halogen spots. LED lamps use a lot less energy. They hardly give off any heat and last for years, making them an obvious choice for the museum. The drawback to LED is the quality of the light. Halogen light just has a way of making the work “pop.” Colors are more vibrant and the work has more depth. Unfortunately, the cost of lighting the entire museum with halogen is too great. We discovered that lighting each of Rona’s sculptures with one LED and one halogen lamp was the best scenario.

 

I admit that, at first, I was frustrated at having to re-light the entire exhibition, but by the end, everyone was happy. I do feel it was an improvement and definitely worth the effort.


Explore Rona Pondick and Robert Feintuch’s exhibition at UMOCA in the Main Gallery until July 15, and view Burdick’s lighting expertise in person!