Light – Conserve, Preserve, Observe Part 2

As promised, here is some more information about the role light plays in conservation, courtesy of Winterthur’s Lighting Specialist Mack Truax.

Part of preventative conservation includes controlling light levels of display areas in order to regulate the amount of damage that occurs to objects. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible, and affects different materials in different degrees. Metals and ceramics, for example, are less vulnerable to light damage than paintings or wood are. This influences where light is directed in museum rooms, and the set-up of rigging options.

As a museum, garden, and library, Winterthur tours often feature live flowers.

As a museum, garden, and library, Winterthur tours often feature live flowers.

Back in the Day

You can see the combined effect of candlelight and natural light in the sixth floor hallway.

You can see the combined effect of candlelight and natural light in the sixth floor hallway.

During H.F. DuPont’s time, he lit the house rooms by candlelight and daylight, preferring a more naturalistic appearance, an aesthetic choice the museum still tries to maintain with electric candles and illuminated windows.

After the estate became a museum in 1951, tinted glass storm windows were added to reduce the amount of visible and UV light that came in. By the 70’s, Plexiglas gray-tinted windows were added, and tours were literally given with flashlights. Visibility was terrible, and one of the biggest complaints from museum visitors.

Out with the Old, in with the New

Someone must have realized giving tours in the dark and only seeing the museum in the weak glow of flashlights was not ideal. The solution?  A two year rewiring project, and five year lighting system project to install a dynamic system that could make it appear like light came from candles and windows, while still keeping light well below conservation-safe standards. The system was also designed to be adjustable, and can be reconfigured to illuminate areas with varying intensity depending on how rooms are staged – as the house frequently rotates items on display.

Winterthur employees that work in the house are given remotes, either with five or three light settings. The remotes allow for adjusting the light settings in the room, though all levels are below conservation-safe levels. The brightest level is considered “study level”, for when students or academics need to closely examine objects on display. After 10 minutes, the system reverts to the “naturalistic mode” used on tours.

Zones, Zones, Zones

The lighting system has six lighting “zones” of varying intensity, which are programmed in relation to the types of materials they illuminate.

Without the help of Zone 4 lighting, the DuPont candles don't actually cast a large glow.

Without the help of Zone 4 lighting, the DuPont candles don’t actually cast a large glow.

Zone 1: Illuminates objects that are less light-sensitive and lighter in color – like marble tabletops, porcelain, or glass.

Zone 2: This zone is for objects that are less light sensitive, but of darker colors – like furniture or paintings.

Zone 3: This zone is for light-sensitive objects, offering some enhancement for paper and textiles.

Zone 4: Works to reinforce the glow of electric candles and fills in pathways used by visitors.

Zone 5: Works as daylight reinforcement by pooling light in front of windows (even ones underground).

Zone 6: Illuminates special areas curators want highlighted.

Other highlighted areas include fireplaces, the insides of cabinets, and underground florescent windows. All the lights have an incredibly warm color temperature, to give the feel of a candlelit glow instead of artificial light.

Taken together, the different zone-lighting creates a general wash of light that mimics candlelight, and illuminates the room as a whole. During the conservation tour, Winterthur’s Lighting Specialist was able to show us one zone illuminated at a time. When taking a regular tour or wandering through the estate, you don’t normally notice how deliberately the lighting is composed and layered.

It’s amazing to think about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into conserving and displaying objects in a museum, and all the details taken into account. The next time you visit a museum, see if you can notice how dim the light is, where it comes from, and what parts of the room are actually directly illuminated. Since the tour, I noticed I pay attention to lighting more, and linger a little longer on an element most museumgoers don’t normally notice.

The next time you visit a museum, look up. That subtle light makes a world of difference.