Museum Lighting: Visual Artifice

May 28, 2004
Lighting by Design
“Good museum lighting,” says lighting designer Frank A. Florentine, “is about sensitivity, daylight, and preservation.” The in-house LD at the National Air and SpaceMuseum in Washington, D.C. (part of the Smithsonian Institution) since 1985, Florentine has some of the world’s largest objects to light — from airplanes to spacecraft. He is responsible for exhibit lighting at both the museum’s original building on the National Mall as well as the new StevenF.Udvar-HazyCenter near DullesInternationalAirport, designed by HOK.In terms of sensitivity, Florentine looks at each item carefully. “You have to understand what the artifact is, and how light can enhance it,” he says. One of his prime examples is the Voyager plane that flew around the world without stopping. “The bottom of the wings weren’t painted,” he points out. “When I lit the plane, I highlighted underneath the wings to show how they shaved extra weight by not painting that part of the plane. The lighting makes it possible for people to understand how the plane made it around the world.”When it comes to preservation, Florentine admits, “light will eventually do damage to the artifact. The client must understand that all light causes damage, so you want to limit this by the quality and quantity of light.” The idea is to use enough light to see an artifact yet not too much that it causes damage in a short amount of time. “You want to use just the essence of visible light, which is only the thickness of a human hair on the electromagnetic spectrum,” Florentine explains.As a child, Florentine presaged his career as a lighting designer by wiring little lights in the houses along his model railroad tracks. After studying theatre at FrostburgUniversity in Maryland, he spent four years in the Coast Guard as a photojournalist, then went back to lighting for theatre and dance, before specializing in museum lighting. His theatrical training gives Florentine the sense of the dramatic when it comes to exhibit lighting. “Yet, in a museum you can’t use saturated color the way you would on stage,” he notes. “That would change the perception of the artifact.”Rather than bright light and color, Florentine opts for dramatic use of low light levels. “You have to use low foot candles,” he says, pointing out that there are specific government regulations that apply at the Smithsonian. But he does not feel restrained in his use of light. “In a museum, you want to make people understand why the object is important. Low foot candles can actually heighten people’s sensitivity.”At the Air and SpaceMuseum, Florentine has a little more leeway than at most museums. “We have big artifacts and long throw distances for the lighting. And the light doesn’t hurt metal aircraft as much.” Even so, when new windows and skylights were put in as part of a $25 million project, the daylight was softened with special UV filters between the layers of glass to reduce the intensity of the sunlight coming through. “We wanted to reduce the amount of sunlight to help protect the artifacts yet still have the feeling that things were floating in the air against the sky. We also want things to sparkle,” says Florentine.The new Udvar-HazyCenter opened late last year, with architectural lighting by Fisher Marantz Stone. Florentine knew he would be working on this project when he was hired at the Air and SpaceMuseum in 1985. “The project started in 1983. It took 20 years to raise the money and complete the design and construction,” he notes.Ambient light for the huge vaulted-ceiling building comes from high-intensity 1500-watt metal halide lamps with no color. The exhibits are lit largely with 39-watt metal halide lamps in PAR heads on track lighting, all of which is controlled by a building automation system. Florentine provides notes to the building management about re-lamping and general upkeep of the lighting systems.For flexibility, he says, “we use mechanical ribbon lifts. These are very compact towers that extend to 7.5 meters. They are portable, on wheels, so you can easily move them. This gives us good uplight where needed, or good downlight without hanging anything from the ceiling. We wanted to reserve the weight load for hanging the planes.”Florentine’s goal is to keep people focused on the planes. “Once the novelty of the new building wears off, people come back to see the artifacts. Making them interesting is the goal of the exhibit lighting designer. You can approach an object from as many angles as possible, then choose the ones you want, giving each one a different flavor.”Florentine looks to nature for inspiration. “Look at the Grand Canyon,” he says. “There is a symmetry that’s not the same. No two curves are the same, yet there is definitely symmetry. But you look at Mother Nature for ideas. You don’t want to reproduce reality, but the essence of reality. The goal is to make people think an object looks like it’s supposed to look.”In all museums, he believes, the lighting should serve as a beacon, telling people where to look first as they walk into a gallery. “It may just be wires and light bulbs, but the designer has to envision how the entire room flows together, especially in terms of cues, focus, and intensity.“You also want to build in flexibility for changing exhibit spaces,” he adds. “You should work with the permanent wall configurations and set up a generic system. A good lighting designer can make it work.”ELLEN LAMPERT-GRÉAUX WRITES REGULARLY ABOUT ARCHITECTURE, DESIGN, AND TECHNOLOGY FOR ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN AND LIGHTING DIMENSIONS MAGAZINES.

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