Book Review: "Museum Lighting: A Guide for Conservators and Curators", by David Saunders

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Book cover. Image courtesy of the Getty Conservation Institute.

Review by Diane Knauf

David Saunders
Museum Lighting: A Guide for Conservators and Curators
Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2020
328 pages/ $70.00 (USD) / Paperback
ISBN 978-1-60606-637-9

Museum Lighting is the most comprehensive guide to understanding light and its impact on the art objects and the viewer’s experience in the museum. Not only does David Saunders build upon the work in Garry Thomson’s The Museum Environment, but this book also offers an updated look at lighting by introducing new research and technology, addressing sustainability, and outlining guidelines for museums and collections.

The first three chapters cover the science of color and light. With an introduction to the fundamental concepts of light, radiation, and human vision, the author prepares the reader to understand the way in which color and light have been classified and measured over time. While the author states that these chapters need not be read in their entirety, the information provided gives the reader a good basis for understanding the material in the later chapters. The highlight of these chapters is a brief description of the instrumentation commonly used to measure color and light, providing not only an understanding of the system of measurements but also how those measurements are taken.

Chapters four and five explore the ways in which visible light and ultraviolet (UV) radiation work as agents of deterioration. The negative impact that visible light and UV radiation can have on objects is discussed both scientifically and as it applies practically to the material classifications of museum objects. The author describes the chemical processes caused by the interaction of materials and light in a brief but understandable manner. Each class of material is then approached individually, including the specific sensitivities of the materials, the chemical process those materials are prone to undergoing when interacting with light, and any exceptions to those sensitivities. As these chapters progress, it becomes clear that in general, visible light tends to cause changes to the appearance of objects, while UV radiation tends to have a greater impact upon their structure.

The next chapter delves into the light that is required for the human eye to see objects based on the intensity, color temperature, and color rendering of light. Since the objects in museums are generally meant to be seen, the importance of the viewer’s ability to see in different lighting scenarios must be considered. The differences in how people see, the ways in which a person’s vision can change over time and individual color preferences are discussed, allowing for an understanding of what lighting conditions are appropriate for the best viewer experience.

Chapters seven through nine gather the information from the previous chapters and explore the ways in which those concepts impact the lighting practices and lighting design within the museum. The author outlines the history of lighting in museums, leading to modern trends toward the use of LEDs and greater concerns about sustainability. The author then goes on to describe practical lighting design methods, dividing them according to two goals—minimizing damage and maximizing visibility—with a chapter dedicated to each. “Lighting with the goal of minimizing damage” addresses elimination of UV, reducing light levels, and reducing exposure times. “Maximizing visibility” explores how lighting design can be used to allow the user to adapt to the changes in light levels throughout a gallery while providing the best viewer experience.

The final chapter discusses the balance between access to a collection and preserving a collection for future generations, which needs to be considered when developing lighting policies and procedures. The author’s concept of an object’s useful lifetime accounts for the material, ethical, and resource considerations that are involved in displaying and conserving a museum object. The reader is thus guided through the development of policies and strategies for lighting design.

In its totality, the book provides the reader with the information necessary to assess the lighting needs and develop a lighting policy for each specific collection. While each chapter can be referenced individually, the author builds on previous topics in order to provide a holistic understanding of the factors to be considered when addressing lighting design and policy within the museum.

Of note is the fact that the author chose not to mention the foot-candle as a unit of measurement for illumination. While lux is generally seen as the more accurate measurement of illumination, many museums in the United States, where the book was published, still use foot-candles. The lack of mention of the foot-candle could point to a growing trend in the United States towards the use of lux as the standard measurement in the museum environment.

While this large assembly of information might seem daunting, the book is well researched and clearly written. With its forward-thinking approach to lighting and the updated information on technology, sustainability, and guidelines used in museum lighting, this publication will quickly become an invaluable resource for conservators, curators, and other museum professionals.

AUTHOR BIO

Diane E. Knauf is the Assistant Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. She graduated with distinction from the MA Conservation of Fine Art- Paper Conservation program at Northumbria University in 2016.

(This review can also be found in the August-September 2020 issue of "News in Conservation" Issue 79, p. 40)

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Museum Lighting is the most comprehensive guide to understanding light and its impact on the art objects and the viewer’s experience in the museum. Not only does David Saunders build upon the work in Garry Thomson’s The Museum Environment, but this book also offers an updated look at lighting by introducing new research and technology, addressing sustainability, and outlining guidelines for museums and collections.
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