I was first drawn to lighting design by the way light can shape the setting and emotions of a place—simply through color, intensity, and angle. I began my lighting career in theater, where I worked on plays, musicals, concerts, and dance performances. This varying experience gave me an appreciation for how light shapes both the emotional and the physical side of a production. In architectural or museum lighting, you are not offered the same range of options for color and angle, yet you do have the ability to shape the emotional reactions of a visitor and highlight the physical attributes of a piece of art.
The two main factors I consider when I begin a lighting design at the NCMA are art conservation lighting standards and the aesthetics of the exhibition. In my work on Word Up, for example, I collaborated with conservators and exhibition designers to create a lighting plan that adheres to conservation standards while creating an overall feeling for the exhibition.
First I had to consider the effects of light intensity on the works of art. All light sources emit UV radiation that damages both the color and the structure of the materials; the more UV exposure, the faster the deterioration. The highest levels of UV come from daylight, and the lowest come from nonviolet LED sources. The halogen lighting commonly used in galleries falls closer to nonviolet LED UV emittance. Some materials are more susceptible to UV damage, such as textiles and paper, so these cannot be exposed to as much light as, say, marble or bronze. Many of the works in Word Up use layered paper, but the tricky part is that some of the more fragile works are right next to works that can withstand more light. I gently eased the lighting levels up or down, with added light on the walls to balance the look of the overall gallery. When you visit Word Up, notice the difference in lighting levels between the paintings on canvas, such as Nathaniel Lancaster’s Here’s to Coexistence, and works using paper such as Derek Toomes’s Hex #FF00FF.
The second thing I consider is the exhibition aesthetics and layout. I work closely with the exhibition designer and curator to create the environment they envision. For Word Up, a contemporary show, the overall feel of the galleries needed to be bright and evenly washed in light. The designers, Shannon Harris and Eric Gaard, felt that a major design feature for Word Up should be its title wall—the first thing, along with The Campaign by Shaun Richards, that visitors see as they come in the main entrance of East Building. So we started discussing specialty lighting treatments. Using lighting that was originally developed for theatrical purposes, I worked with the graphic designer, Dave Rainey, to develop a one-of-kind pattern for the title wall. It definitely got the reaction we wanted from day one: every NCMA staff member who wandered by while it was being installed commented on how great it was, even saying it looked like flames of light!
Lighting is a powerful yet subtle design element in the museum environment. The next time you are in one of our galleries, stop and think about the lighting and how it has affected your experience!
Caroline Davenport is the lighting designer in the Exhibition Design Department at the NCMA.