From June 21 to 24, to mark the summer solstice, we will turn off all electrical lighting in the West Building galleries for the first time during public hours. The permanent collection’s 5,000 years of art will be illuminated by the same light artists have seen through the millennia. Come experience art in the quiet of natural light. I can promise it will be memorable.
The open layout of the galleries connects ancient, Old Master, and modern art under a balanced, dynamic light.
Much museum lighting, like in our own East Building, relies on spotlighting works of art in “black-box” galleries, excluding daylight to control the level of light paintings and other pigments and materials are exposed to. Controlled (static) lighting has been the dominant American curatorial preference, presenting collections theatrically, guiding the eye from one work to another.
Designing for the NCMA’s permanent collection, architects Thomas Phifer and Partners (New York) and engineers Arup (London) used advanced engineering to create daylit galleries throughout West Building, which opened in 2010. In nature’s own light, we see a wider color range. Though augmented by track lights, light in West Building is dynamic: Each passing cloud, change in season, and time of day affects visitors’ experience.
This low-energy approach, along with the open enfilade layout of the galleries, in which one room opens to the next, creates a visitor experience where ancient, Old Master, and modern works of art are connected under a balanced, dynamic light. Galleries visually connect to gardens, courtyards, and the Museum Park. The approach is critical to the overarching NCMA philosophy to connect art and nature campuswide.
How daylighting works in West Building
North light enters the building through a series of filters. Engineer Andrew Sedgwick calculated a safe “yearly budget” of light for the collection, allowing for real-time and season change. Sunlight passes through a series of filters:
Aerial view, 2010. Louvers running the length of West Building allow only north light in.
- Rooftop louvers screen out direct light, shading the skylights below.
- Films built into the skylights block ultraviolet radiation.
- The 360 elliptical openings in the ceiling each have two diffusing filters to provide soft, even light distribution in the galleries. Various fabric filters control for higher or lower levels of light: marble sculptures can tolerate more light than paintings. Works on paper or wood need more protection.
View of coffers from the galleries. Each elliptical ceiling opening has two diffusing filters to provide soft, even light.
We invite you to visit West Building June 21–24 to see the Museum's collection in natural light, and we welcome your comments. How did the experience affect you?