Trendswatch | New approaches to lighting - Museums Association

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Trendswatch | New approaches to lighting

Caroline Parry looks at how lighting design can help enhance the visitor experience and keep objects safe
Exhibitions Lighting
Dulwich Picture Gallery ERCO Gavrill Papadiotis

Exhibition lighting and its design has always presented museums and galleries with complex challenges. With its remit to help tell the curator’s story, enhance the visitor experience and ensure object conservation, getting the lighting right is a delicate balancing act.

Lighting is a dynamic and fast-evolving part of exhibition design. New technology, changing regulations and a sector-wide push to be more inclusive and sustainable, and to actively support wellbeing, are all having an impact.

There is no “one size fits all” approach – every exhibition, collection or space has its unique requirements. But what trends, techniques and thinking are affecting exhibition lighting design? 


While many museums and galleries were originally designed to be lit with daylight, concerns over light damage and conservation have led to windows and other openings being blocked up over the years. 

Nick Cramp, museum and gallery lighting designer at services engineers Max Fordham, says: “The effect of those measures has been to lessen the connection with the outside, making orientation more difficult and depriving occupants of healthy natural light.”


For new-build projects, Cramp and his team always consider how to make best use of natural light and views. For redevelopments of existing galleries and museums, it’s about how to safely reintroduce daylight to save energy, reduce emissions and provide a healthy environment for everyone. 

Daylighting presents many challenges for conservation standards – mainly because of the British weather. “Our constantly changing climate means daylight levels are very inconsistent, and we need to aggregate them over a long period of time to understand them properly,” says Cramp.

The state-of-the-art technology to carry out these studies holds the key to the greater use of daylight. Cramp used it to restore the glass pyramids on the roof of the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, after a 30-year absence of daylight.

At Westminster Abbey, it has been used to create the Triforium Galleries from a previously unused space. A three-month study – called a “cumulative lux analysis” – was used to bounce every light beam in the building. The study revealed where it is safe to place objects, showing that moving them just a few millimetres is sometimes enough to satisfy conservation standards.

Suitable solutions

Reliable, energy-efficient LEDs are now well established across the sector, and with significant improvements in colour rendering over the past 10 years, these lightbulbs are more suitable for lighting artworks and objects than ever before. Replacing traditional systems with LEDs remains a key aim for the sector.


But a lack of funding, long refurbishment cycles and diminishing levels of internal expertise are barriers for many smaller institutions to make this necessary change, says Stephen Cannon-Brookes, founder of Cannon-Brookes Lighting and lecturer at University College London’s Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources. 

At the same time, attention is turning to recycling old exhibition fittings and reducing the future impact of sourcing raw materials, manufacturing and transportation. 

“It is vital that we consider the whole life cost of lighting systems, including the disposal of old lighting, which may contain mercury and other contaminants, the future reuse and recycling of modern fittings,” says Cramp.

Smart and Bluetooth lighting 

Mark Sutton Vane, founder of lighting designers Sutton Vane Associates, says the main current developments are in the technology behind the light fitting.

Bluetooth and smart lighting products and systems are widely available, offering institutions greater flexibility and reducing energy usage.


This type of system is in action at London’s Museum of the Home, which reopened in 2021 following an £18m refurbishment. Installed by Max Fordham, the museum features Bluetooth exhibition lighting that saves on control wiring and lets staff change the lighting via their phones.

For smaller museums and institutions that host temporary exhibitions, Bluetooth systems and iBeacon technology offer more flexibility than smart lighting and are more cost efficient, says Andrew Molyneux, a director at TM Lighting. With iBeacon, sensors on the walls can detect lux levels and adjust the lighting accordingly.

It is also possible for staff to see when a fitting is not functioning correctly and to record how much energy is being consumed. “That’s the future,” says Sutton Vane. “The tech is there if people want to use it, but it should never lead the design.”

Dulwich Picture Gallery in London has been using Bluetooth LED lighting since 2019, and incorporates it into its exhibition design process. Lauren Page, marketing manager of Erco Lighting, which has been working with the gallery, says: “As museums continue to embrace the potential of quality LED technologies, they not only enhance the visitor experience but also contribute to sustainability efforts, making it an essential consideration for any institution seeking to remain at the forefront of modern and responsive lighting design.”

Current legislation and conservation standards

There is a patchwork of standards around exhibition and display lighting, including the International Commission on Illumination CIE 157:2004 Technical Report – Control of Damage to Museum Objects by optical Radiation. The British Standards Institution has guidance on managing conditions for cultural collections and the conservation of cultural heritage. 

Looking to the future, new fittings will offer increased efficiency, colour rendering and lamp life, with wireless controls becoming mainstream. Environmentally conscious products, including recycled light fittings, will become more widely available.

Cramp predicts there will be a greater focus on retro-fitting institutions and wider use of the analysis techniques used at the Triforium Galleries. Sutton Vane thinks we will see more-dramatic lighting techniques used, as museums develop their visitor experiences to compete with other leisure activities.

He highlights the dramatic approach to lighting at Kuwait’s Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre: “The lighting tells stories, emphasising the drama. It’s fun – and a whole new way of working.”

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