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Museum lighting between objectivity and hyperrealism: Interpreting Art with Light


Art is made apparent in museums by light. The interpretation of light occurs concurrently. Regarding how art should be presented properly, curators, architects, conservators, lenders, artists, and viewers often have different expectations. The six display categories presented in this article, which is based on the aesthetics of image and exhibition, range from the objective reception of art to hyperrealism and the dynamic transmission of art treasures. Three factors contribute to differentiation: the substance of the artworks, the formal characteristics of the picture medium, and the temporal and geographical context of the work. Curators may effectively define lighting for the space and show by examining the brightness, contrast, and light environment of the artwork in order to visually build a common connection between the observer and the artwork or to accomplish a change for stressing a conceptual notion. The study provides criteria for how much the lighting idea conveys a genuine impression in connection to how the viewer perceives the artist's creation of the image.

1. Introduction

Every kind of lighting used in museums conveys a conceptionally oriented approach to art. Even exhibition halls with a neutral environment reveal a certain curatorial philosophy, like in cases when calmly lit walls or just diffuse sunshine is available as a light source. The same holds true for extensively used accent lighting that displays art as a group of unique pieces. However, since wildly divergent tastes regularly collide, the choice of how to interpret the lighting of artworks is typically tied to a lengthy creative process (Garside et al. Citation2017). Architects demand that the building itself be acknowledged, lighting designers prioritize the role of light, curators seek to contextualize the collection as a whole, conservators work to prevent any damage to the artifacts, collectors serve as lenders and are eager to convey a particular aesthetic sense, and the artists themselves demand that their individual works be displayed appropriately (Lippert Citation 2009). Additionally, there are several generations of tourists whose interest in culture generally depends on how expressive a presentation is (Kesner Citation 1993).

The use of light provides exhibition planners with a powerful weapon that may build the mood for viewing art, create drama to assist its reception, and overall contribute to the success of the show. As a result, the issue of which criteria should be used to establish a good lighting concept—the light environment inside the particular artwork—rapidly emerges for all participants. or the illumination used to produce the piece? What is suitable for artwork that was first made by candlelight and that should now be attractively displayed? Should one piece of art serve as the barometer or, better yet, the central concept of the whole exhibition? How may light be used to enhance the impact and engagement with art? When does light look real, and under what conditions may it alter the exhibition's meaning?

Changes to the space, display format, and exhibit are first given to help viewers understand the context of exhibition lighting. Six lighting ideas show how presentations may take many different forms, from the facade of objective art appreciation to the spontaneous expression of art.

1.1. Architecture of Museums

Since the 1990s, museum architecture has undergone a significant transformation as a venue for the exhibition of art (Barreneche Citation2005; MacLeod Citation2005). Since many institutions have grown, tourists now often come to see the architecture in addition to the exhibits. After a period in which museums were built as monuments and throughout the 1960s and 1970s as adaptable tools for exhibitions inside of white rooms, architecturally expressive forms were developed that were also meant to take on a significant civic role (Macdonald Citation 2006). With the pyramid of the Louvre in Paris lighted in the evening, for instance, I.M. Pei created an eye-catching orienting point for tourists and visitors (Schielke Citation 2017). The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry is credited with creating the "Bilbao effect," which many museums have since tried to imitate in an effort to attain similar cultural and financial success (Jencks Citation 2005).

1.2. Modifications to Exhibition Design

Parallel to developments in the building, exhibition design and lighting have advanced and improved (Steiner Citation 2004). Although substantial implementation was seldom achieved, the desire for mobility and flexibility was present from an early age (Grau et al. Citation2017). These adaptable demands of the museum directors were succinctly stated by the artist and architect Friedrich Kiesler: "One should be able to adjust the heights and widths of the rooms at whim. Automatically, if at all feasible. Skylight and sidelight shouldn't be disregarded. Overall, the size and dimensions of the museum, as well as the lighting, should be adjustable (Kiesler Citation 1966, p. 94).

The focus of museums has also greatly shifted over the last several decades from being organizations that conserve our cultural heritage to being services for the general public (Hoare et al. Citation2016). This has implications for lighting design as well since it must adhere to the diverse requirements of presentation and display. This transition also encompasses, for instance, the understanding of visitors as consumers seeking entertainment, providing a platform for individuals and businesses aiming to give their events a cultural sheen, establishing the museum as a presentation interface to sponsors, and understanding exhibitions as a location for educating groups or conference attendees (Hooper-Greenhill Citation2000; Voorhies Citation2017).

Additionally, museums have a unique issue when it comes to the display of several exhibitions. Because receiving things requires mental effort due to the abundance of visual stimuli around us, observer fatigue may develop (Kaplan and Kaplan Citation1982). Therefore, "museum fatigue" is another name for the waning interest in exhibits in relation to factors including satiation, tension, information overload, and competition between various items (Bitgood Citation 2009). Appropriate lighting of the areas and displays to make the surroundings more legible is one component that might lessen weariness (Lam Citation 1977).

Additionally, scenographic display ideas with appropriate lighting are a crucial part of providing tourists with a pleasurable stay. To achieve a new level of sensitivity with regard to brightness or color, reduction is sometimes used (Dicks Citation 2003; Reinhardt and Teufel Citation 2010). This strategy also includes surprises to communicate new ways of accessing content, orientation to make an exhibition's concept more understandable, special events where visitors can become familiar with exhibits at night in a different context, and special events where visitors can become familiar with exhibits during the day within a different context.

1.3. Exhibition of Art

Sculptures and pictures often make up the majority of an art museum's exhibitions. From the curator's perspective, three factors are important for showing works of art with light, in addition to conservation requirements: (1) What connection does the piece of art have to the space and the viewer? (2) How can the artwork's materiality be properly emphasized? (3) What elements of art theory are pertinent? The first query concerns the positioning of the elements and how the picture frame creates a barrier between the artwork and the viewer. The second component is shown by Middle Ages artworks and demonstrates how certain materials, colors, and painting styles need proper lighting. The third query is clarified in the next paragraph from the perspective of the artist and demonstrates the many ways in which an artist might interpret light and apply it to his or her creations.

The removal of the picture frame from contemporary paintings marked a significant shift in the way art is shown and in the interaction between the artwork and the viewer since the end of the 19th century (Washburn Citation1965). The hefty gold frames served to both accentuate and isolate the piece of art from its surrounds. The oblique tilt of the frame added to the sensation of depth. This allowed for tight salon-style hangings without content problems since the frames kept the pieces apart. As shown by the New York school of action painting, understanding of images has dramatically altered in the contemporary period as a consequence of their expansion in size. According to Washburn (Citation1965), doing without a frame meant that the distinction between the picture and the observer was eliminated to create a cohesive unit. Comparatively to Renaissance paintings, for instance, which are characterized by heavy frames and tight arrangements in palaces or museums, modern paintings are more suited for broad spacing inside extremely large spaces. If paintings are put tightly together to have a greater effect as an ensemble than as individual pieces, Washburn (Citation1965) even finds a big misunderstanding with current works of art.

The representation of color and texture on the pictorial surface comes to the forefront if the viewpoint is switched from image frame to picture content. For instance, light akin to candlelight in antique cathedrals is necessary to make the gold ground in religious paintings from the Middle Ages look brilliant, lavish, and costly (Schöne Citation1983). Very vivid accents, according to Schöne (Citation 1983), lessen the intensity and effect of such paintings. By substituting clear glass for the original colorful, diffused church windows, the impact would also be altered. The lighting in the space is just as important for the impression of illuminated glass window art and mosaics as it is for works of art made of gold. The typical practice of hanging paintings from the 16th to the 18th century on very brilliant walls, according to Schöne (Citation 1983), lowers the light effect of the picture in favor of its color impact. This is because the bright walls outshine the piece of art. On the other side, Schöne (Citation 1983) asserts that utilizing bright walls is comprehensible with current art, where the color is more significant than the light.

1.4. Painting with Light

When designing exhibits, it's critical to consider how artists perceive light in order to determine how well they can convey their creative vision to the museum visitors present. Two features define the concept of light in art: first, how light directs attention, and second, how the eye sees light (Arnheim Citation 1960). We instantly shift our focus and point of view if, for instance, a forest floor is exposed to intense sun rays that pass through the leaves. The subjective impression of light via the eye differs from the scientific understanding of physical reality for artists (Arnheim Citation 1960).

Observed under homogeneous illumination, things don't seem to get their brilliance from any other source. This characteristic is described as intrinsic by Arnheim (Citation 1960). However, Arnheim (Citation 1960) divides the two into "object brightness" and "illumination" to distinguish between things and light. These two elements are not always connected in works of art: a light source may be present, but no lighted objects may be seen in the image. Alternately, even if the light source is outside the picture space, the objects will still be illuminated. An additional factor that must be taken into account while seeing artwork is the light source that both the viewer and the space in which the artwork is displayed are illuminated by. Therefore, the kind of lighting used by the artist to produce the image and the type of illumination used by the spectator to assess the artwork may either work together or be in contradiction. Shadows have significance and importance for photographic material and rooms in a manner comparable to how light is a foil for the symbolism of day or night, clarity or concealment (Binet et al. Citation2002).

There have been several eras in the management of light throughout the history of art. Early Greek or Egyptian art has a difference in brightness between the foreground and background figures, although this effect is produced by the brightness of the objects themselves rather than by illumination (Arnheim Citation 1960). Only as time passed was the use of shadows developed. The substance of the golden ground had a significant impact on the light in the Middle Ages picture.

Leonardo da Vinci's contribution to the definition of light and shadow during the transition to the Renaissance is significant: "luce" refers to the candle's light source and "lume" to the lit side of a sphere (Richter and Leonardo Citation1989). The distinction between "ombra primitiva" and "ombra drivativa" refers to the cast shadow of an object that occupies space and falls to the ground, respectively. Prior to taking on a significant symbolic function in chiaroscuro, light in the early Renaissance was mostly utilized to model volume, as can be seen in an early phase with Leonardo's "Last Supper" and subsequently in expressive form with the works of Rembrandt (Arnheim Citation 1960). On the other hand, the vivid and dazzling paintings of the Impressionists display a distinct understanding of light. In pointillism, where the graphic impact was produced by dots of brightness and color, this evolution achieved its pinnacle.

1.5. Techniques for Distinguishing Light Concepts

Technical details like painting visibility, appropriate luminaire configurations, conservation-related concerns, or accurate color rendering are extensively examined in scientific literature about museum lighting (Cannon-Brookes Citation 2000; Cuttle Citation 1996; Rawson-Bottom and Harris Citation 1958). The analyses partially address the issue by analyzing a single work of art, disparate works of art, or distinct sections of a painting, or by referencing a particular painting technique or historical era, but in actuality, a generalization with multiple works of art and various painting techniques is typically not feasible. The development of light emitting diode (LED) technology has also made it possible to alter the spectrum and match color temperatures to natural daylight and graphical content (Csuti et al. Citation2015; Nascimento and Masuda Citation2014).

This article examines three factors to determine whether different light concepts are appropriate for works of art: (1) the content of the artworks as determined by art history and theory, (2) the formal characteristics of the image medium, such as size and proportion, and (3) the spatial and temporal contexts in which the work was created and the predominant type of light at that time. The final item also takes into account brightness, angle of incidence, light dispersion, and spectrum. The light notions are differentiated via a divide into six groups. From objective to emotive presentation, they are available. This separation is essentially carried out based on luminance distribution, which ranges from extremely broad to restricted light distributions. For the goal of additional distinction, the spectrum is also taken into account, ranging from a single light hue to a mixture of colored light.

Based on gestalt (composition) psychology and the principles of design, such as the law of similarity or the law of excellent gestalt, the analysis of impact and effect is conducted (Wertheimer Citation 1923). With an emphasis on coherence, complexity, intelligibility, and mystery, for example, the visual patterns produced by varied brightness distributions and light ideas may be employed to create distinct environments (Kaplan & Kaplan Citation1982). With the help of semiotics, the lighting is also seen as a sign of communication in which things alter their meaning via light (Hill Citation1999; Schielke Citation2018).


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