While the finest art will look pretty good in any light, there are methods that can be used to properly light art in museums to make it look like the masterpiece it is. Lighting is critical and even the slightest difference in direction or type of bulb (fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, natural) can make all the difference.
While many artists are trained to believe that natural light is the best for any art, that’s simply not true. Natural light is hard to control, which can pose big problems for the art, particularly works on paper or paintings. Infrared and ultraviolet rays can damage the art and even be so harmful that the works are faded over time. Textiles, too, will fade over just a few months, so clearly natural light is not the answer when lighting museums.
Incandescent lights have good and bad aspects. While they bring out warm colors such as reds, browns, oranges, and yellows, they do not have the same effect on cooler colors like blues and greens. As a result, these cooler colors will be flattened out. Fluorescent lights aren’t necessarily the answer, either, as they, too, can give off a high amount of the harmful UV rays and like incandescent, don’t emit light across the entire spectrum of colors.
Surprising to many is the fact that halogen lights are actually among the best lighting solutions for museums if they’re installed properly. Due to the strong white lights they emit, a low watt light may be a great solution, as it will allow subtleties to come through. In addition, a low watt halogen based bulb has recently been created that redirects the damaging UV and infrared rays, making them one of the best options for many works of art.
It should be noted that in museums, no piece of art should be kept on display for a long period of time, as all light, regardless of whether natural or artificial, is damaging to the art. This can have harmful effects like changing the colors and can devalue the art over time. Direct lighting systems are never recommended and direct light should never be placed right on a piece of art.
Generally a compromise is necessary. While it’s not necessary to go out and buy all sorts of types of lights, pieces should be lit wisely. It’s especially important to avoid UV and infrared rays from directly hanging works of art in the sun. In addition, don’t shine any bright lights directly onto the art, especially those on paper. It should be noted that in addition to works on paper, photographs are the most fragile.
In summary, natural light will make the art look great, but will deteriorate it rapidly, so it is to be avoided at all costs. Fluorescent lights are also not recommended for art in most cases. Incandescent is great for warm colors but not recommended for cooler colors, so if your art has a variety of colors, this type should be avoided. A combination of halogen and incandescent lighting may be the best combination for the widest range of art lighting situations.
Given the amount of time and energy that goes into creating each work of art, it would be doing both the artist and the viewer a disservice to not display the pieces with the best possible lighting.
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