How Dulwich Picture Gallery is taking museum lighting out of the shadows

Q&A on an innovative approach to lighting a new Rembrandt exhibition
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Rebecca Atkinson
In 1639, the Dutch painter Rembrandt wrote to the owner of one of his paintings requesting that they “hang this piece in a strong light and where one can stand at a distance, so it will sparkle at its best”.
Fast forward 380 years, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London is taking inspiration from these words and trialing a new approach to lighting a major exhibition of his greatest paintings, etchings and drawings.
Rembrandt’s Light (4 October to 2 February 2020) will explore how the artist used light and shadow for dramatic effect, to evoke different moods and themes and to depict raw human emotion.
In this Q&A, Alexander Moore, the head of exhibitions at the gallery, explains how a new Bluetooth LED lighting system has been an essential part of the exhibition design.
Moore will share more about the project at the Museums Association’s one-day conference, Bright Ideas: New Perspectives on Museum Lighting, on 11 September at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.
What’s new about the lighting system Dulwich Picture Gallery has installed for this exhibition?
For the first time the gallery will work with experts from other industries to try to better understand how light can be used to convey emotion and impact the visitor experience as well as the presentation of the artworks.
In fact, we are even going so far as to include notes on lighting in our interpretation. We want to open up conversations about light – since it is a crucial part of the gallery’s heritage.
What impact do you think this technology will have on the visitor experience?

We hope that the lighting in the exhibition will improve the understanding of Rembrandt’s use of light. When you are standing in a space dedicated to the “meditative mood”, which is encapsulated in some of Rembrandt’s work, we want the atmosphere to feel serene and calm.

This way it is almost as though the visitor steps inside the painting. The technology allows us to have greater control over these ‘atmospheres’ as we can design from the ground, as collaborators – and include the curators, designers and external partners in the process.
The cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has been involved in the design of the exhibition. What role has he played?
From the beginning Peter has been very passionate and vocal about how the Old Masters have influenced his work. Through learning from painters like Rembrandt, Peter has developed an acute understanding of how one lights a scene, with a particular concept, story or emotion in mind.
We interviewed Peter about the influence of Rembrandt on his work – a transcript of which will be published in the exhibition’s catalogue. When we install, Peter will provide on the ground artistic direction for the lighting of the exhibition and the spaces.
Are there longer-term plans for lighting the Dulwich Picture Gallery?

We eventually plan to upgrade the entire gallery to Bluetooth LED technology. The transformation of our temporary exhibition lighting is the first step, which we hope will help raise awareness of the importance of transferring to LED and the impact it can have.
This could help us to raise funds for the remainder of the lighting project.
We trialed this theory by lighting just one work in our collection for a patrons’ event and raised a significant contribution to the overall budget.
Do you have any personal highlights or favourite features of the exhibition?
There is one room in the exhibition that will house just one work. I can’t give too much away, but the intention is to bring the story of this particular painting alive, through a changing light display.
I can’t wait to see how visitors react!

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