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Electrifying Our Past - Lighting in Museums

Museums have a hard line to walk, exhibiting items for public education and enjoyment while protecting those same collections from damage. Today’s museum also carry the additional weight of safeguarding the future of the environment – as well as their financial future – against the dangers of unnecessary energy consumption. What advancements have been made in preservation lighting technology to help accomplish these goals?

Why Preservation Lighting is Necessary

Light, including all three types: ultraviolet (UV), infrared, and visible light, causes permanent and irreversible damage to museum pieces. Cumulative and dependent on the intensity and duration of exposure, light affects chemical composition, physical structure, and, the appearance of a collection. There is no conservation treatment that can repair it. Light damage is forever.

The Dilemma

Only complete darkness ensures conservation, since exposure to light in any form naturally breaks down items. However, keeping pieces locked away in the dark defeats the mission of the museum – sharing those works with the public. It is thus a museum’s dilemma to find a suitable solution that balances the best of both worlds, in addition to considering energy costs and the environmental impact of its lighting selection.  

Preventing UV Damage

In your search for preservation lighting, you will find that a great deal of lighting solutions involve UV (ultraviolet light), the most energetic and destructive form of light. These include natural light, fluorescents, HID, and tungsten halogen lighting. Fortunately, the effects of UV can be controlled with simple filters, offering a greater variety of lighting options. UV filters are hard plastic tubes or soft sleeves wrapped around bulbs/light sources, which filter and block up to 98 percent of UV light, preventing its damaging effects. NOTE: UV filters lose efficiency over time and must be replaced every eight-10 years.

What are you considering for your preservation lighting options?

  • Daylight
    Unless properly filtered, natural light should be eliminated from exhibit and storage areas.
  • Incandescent Lighting
    Although they emit little UV, incandescent lighting is old and inefficient, giving off only 10 percent of energy as visible light, and 90 percent of their energy as heat, which can damage artifacts.
  • Tungsten Halogen
    A variation of incandescent lighting and twice as efficient, these lights emit significant UV radiation and must be filtered.
  • HID/High Intensity Discharge 
    Mercury and metal halide HIDs create much more intense UV than fluorescents, are difficult to filter, and should be avoided.
  • CFLs
    Emit significant UV, but last 10 times longer and use 75 percent less energy than incandescent lighting. They can be used in existing incandescent sockets and have a more pleasing color than commercial/traditional fluorescents, but must be filtered.
  • LEDs
    Use 75-80 percent less energy than incandescent lights and last up to 25 times longer. Now proven for museum use, recent testing at Getty Conservation Institute in L.A. has shown LEDs will not harm artwork when used properly, and often provide superior light.
  • Fiber Optic
    Efficient fiber optic systems are 80 percent more efficient than incandescent lighting. Only one lamp/ballast is needed to produce multiple light sources, which give them a cost similar to comparable halogen systems. They transmit no infrared or UV light, are heat-free, offers precise spotlighting, are durable, and come in a variety of colors.

Add ease-of-use and versatility to your preservation lighting systems with:

  • Occupancy Sensors
    Turning off lights when exhibit areas as much as possible protects precious items. Occupancy sensors make this task a snap, activating lights based on signals such as light, movement, or temperature, offering convenience, energy savings, and safety.
  • Dimmers
    Another great tool to help you find the perfect level of illumination, lessen damage to exhibit items, and reduce energy use.
  • Accent Lighting
    Accent lighting, particularly track lighting, offer a versatile solution to lighting needs, allowing for lower levels of general illumination and the washing or spotlighting of displayed items.

What are the best preservation lighting levels for specific collections?

Specific, detailed recommendations for preservation lighting levels based on your collection type can be found from various sources, including the Library of CongressNational Park ServiceUNESCO, and more.

Time to make your incandescent lights history? Mr. Electric® can help you with all of your preservation lighting needs. Contact us today.