Focus: Change & Technology

Jonathan Howard, of DHA Designs, looks at how change and new technology have affected lighting design

Museums have undergone considerable transformation in the past 50 years. The M-word used to conjure up a solemn, stuffy and static environment, where glass-cased exhibits were pondered in silence bordering on reverence.

The ambience was often less museum than mausoleum. While certain recognisable conventions remain, the drive has been to make them more accessible, entertaining and democratic. New technologies and techniques have injected life, colour and interactivity into displays – and light, particularly, has been a crucial tool in transforming these learning spaces. While museums once followed a familiar model, what is striking now is how divergent are the approaches they take. The picture galleries at the V&A, and the Atmosphere Gallery at the Science Museum, for example, are both spaces in institutions that are called museums, separated by only a few tens of metres in Exhibition Road, London.

The key point though is that in terms of content and visitor experience, they are very far apart. However, both spaces required lighting to tell the story: in the first, to illuminate the artworks, reveal the architecture of the gallery, light explanatory texts and to work with the abundant daylight. In the second, the lighting has become one of the players in an immersive, theatrical environment, designed to heighten the emotions and enfold the visitor in a space that reflects and amplifies the subject matter.

SFor Savage Beauty at the V&A, light level restrictions to protect fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s creations had to be balanced with generating the heightened sense of drama each show created.SFor Savage Beauty at the V&A, light level restrictions to protect fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s creations had to be balanced with generating the heightened sense of drama each show created

Lighting and lighting design has had to be highly adaptable to reflect changes in the many ways that galleries and museums present their subject matter. Visitors are now used to visual material of incredible sophistication, from multimedia art and film through to computer games, and have come to expect more from the spaces they visit. As lighting designers, we are no longer simply concerned with revealing objects, but communicating concepts, creating spaces and providing a richly textured visual landscape. Visitor experience is key.

These new systems of display and interaction have thrown up some technical challenges. Savage Beauty, the 2015 exhibition at the V&A focusing on fashion designer Alexander McQueen, was designed by the producers of McQueen’s fashion shows. They wanted to recreate some of the compelling storytelling environments that McQueen used, but in a museum environment. As the lighting team we had to balance the light-level restrictions required to protect his creations with satisfying the heightened sense of drama and anticipation each show created in its audience.

We used theatrical profiles to isolate every dress to very accurate light levels and make each a star, but at many points we were presenting against large video screens. At one time, the use of video and projection would require us to control light levels very carefully to avoid bleaching out the screens with stray light, but now the reverse is true, and screens and projectors are so bright we can struggle to ensure that displays are seen against them.

We needed to work closely with the video-screen designers so that the light from the screens did not overexpose the objects before we even started: a photon is still a photon, whether it comes from a lamp, cathode ray tube or LED screen, and will still have the potential to damage delicate items. We needed to position lighting so that visitors could see the projection screens, some of which were floor-to-ceiling, but could also navigate the space safely; contrast and light levels had to be considered carefully.

Interactivity and video-mapping are two techniques that have also become more prevalent. In the Churchill War Rooms exhibition in Westminster, an interactive timeline was projected on to a table top. In this case, we needed to include lighting that took account of changing information on the table top (done through colour), while also carefully controlling the nearby exhibit lighting to avoid lessening the impact of the projection. This was achieved by using a larger number of lower-wattage fixtures, all with very good glare control.

Another exhibition that made extensive use of very carefully focused projection was Hollywood Costume (2012), also at the V&A. Image-mapping was used so that 3D objects (such as a film can on the table) became projection surfaces. Again, we had to consider the angle and intensity of the lighting, so that no stray illumination fell on to the projection surfaces (which were white to maximise their reflectance), as this would have revealed any light spill very unforgivingly. Because this also meant reducing light levels, we had to fit many of the lamps with pale-blue glass filters so as to correct the colour shift seen when dimming the tungsten lamps and avoid a creamy wash over every object.

Interactivity reached a peak in our work for the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum; the gallery featured an art piece, Fiduciary Beacons by Rafael Lozano Hemmer. Each ‘beacon’ element was a light structure, which reflected the speech by either a key figure in the history of communications, or the reactions of gallery visitors. As spectators could listen to the audio by looking at their beacon on a smartphone, it was critical that the gallery light levels were not so high that they would interfere with the operation of the art; nor could there be any glare sources in the viewing angle of the pieces that might interfere with the view of the phone camera.

The Atmosphere Gallery at the Science Museum, where lighting has become one of the players in an immersive, theatrical environment.The Atmosphere Gallery at the Science Museum, where lighting has become one of the players in an immersive, theatrical environment

Our design had to use heavily shielded lighting in positions away from the beacons, so that the artwork operated correctly; in return, the cool white light of the beacons was chosen to complement the lighting of the gallery, and the artwork formed part of the ambient light of the exhibition.

Also at the Science Museum, the 2013 Web Lab exhibition space was an enormous experiment in interactivity: every exhibit could be operated by a physical visitor, or by an online one when the physical museum was closed. In either circumstance, we had to ensure that the lighting allowed the variety of cameras and other sensing devices to operate correctly. Meanwhile the visitor experience was that of a large ‘clean room’, where delicate technologies were assembled.

We used a combination of cool-white fluorescent sources to get the high ambient levels required for the cameras, then added a layer of well-louvred spotlights in a warmer colour to accent individual interactive controls and objects. In this case, the warmth of the tungsten was used as a ‘human’ element to the design, to contrast with the ‘machine’ element of the cool-white fluorescent wash.

The 2013 David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A had, as you might expect, a strong performance element. To inject that, we went back to theatrical control technologies. We recreated elements of live performance lighting that had to tie in with the video projection of concerts. We used DMX lighting controls, used in theatre and performance venues, for high-speed and accurate control of the lighting, so that it synchronised perfectly with the video storyline.

All these new requirements in lighting – integration with projection, with display screens, with interactivity and with performance elements – has affected the way we control and produce lighting. Simple dimmers are now being replaced by sophisticated LED control technology, using dimming methodologies such as PWM or Pulse Width Modulation (controlling the LED source in a pulse of light), resulting in smaller but more complex installations, that are now more akin to data networks than the lighting systems that a technician would have understood 20 years ago.

As in lighting generally, LEDs have largely replaced filament lamps. They are more efficient, but until recently control has been rudimentary, and colour rendering and appearance not on a par with the best filament lamps. Exhibitions have gained from using far less power and having to deal with far less heat as a bonus, however, and objects are lit by a largely UV-free source of light.

The concerns that I have are that although we are now no longer simply dimming a crude filament lamp with a large resistance dimmer, the complexities of the systems are such that clients, faced with a fault, are not sure whether to call an electrician or a software engineer.

Older systems were relatively crude and inefficient, but eminently fixable. Newer systems can use proprietary technologies, protected by patents and obscure operating systems. Clients worry that they are not in charge of their own systems, and can actively resist using equipment they feel will be expensive or difficult to maintain.

But, as is covered elsewhere in this section, emergent technologies such as Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee open up whole new options for distributed and mesh control systems. Each light fixture becomes its own control system, responding directly and individually to sensors in the space. However, what we must always consider when using these new technologies is whether we are doing it for the sake of newness, or because they offer a genuine improvement on what we had before.

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