Democratising museums: A brief history of museum lighting

By Panos Andrikopoulos, UCL

Museums have been around for a long time: John Tzetzes writes that the “Musaeum” or “Mouseion at Alexandria” which housed the famous library, was founded by Ptolemy I Soter during the Hellenistic period, around 280 BC. The Latin word “museum” originates from the Ancient Greek word “Μουσεῖον” (mouseion), which signifies an institution dedicated to the Muses (the goddesses of literature, science and the arts in Greek mythology). Though, Museaum had little to do with latter Renaissance museums: it was an institution, the home of music, poetry, philosophy and literature rather than a public collection of artworks. Some early private collections of wealthy society members were displayed as cabinets of curiosities (according to Casey Wilson’s “Firsts: Origins of Everyday Things That Changed the World”, the first museum of such kind was the Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum in 530 BC), though the majority of museums as we know them today as public accessed collections of artworks and objects, were founded during the Renaissance and transformed during the industrial revolution when they were sought as key planks of the process of informal education.

Artificial lighting for extended access

In a paper presented in the 2002 University Museums in Scotland Conference, Swinney discusses how the changing social framework and the reforms of the 18th – 19th century relationship were the incentives for the introduction of artificial lighting systems in Museums and Galleries. Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) and a social reformer was a pioneer of the idea:

“He (Henry Cole) held a strong conviction that museums and galleries provided a means of practical education through the study of objects and that they should be developed for the education of the working people. But the working people had little leisure time in which to visit collections. The workday was long and included Saturdays, although Saturday working hours tended to be shorter. Whilst religious considerations precluded work on Sunday, they also precluded the opening of museums and galleries. If the museums and galleries were to be available to the working people they had to be open in the evenings.”

Late openings would allow working class to visit the museum and would “furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace” as Henry Cole famously put it. Unavoidably, the Victoria and Albert Museum (then named South Kensington Museum) was the first to ever install an artificial lighting system. The Sheepshanks Gallery, designed by Captain Francis Fowke and opened on the 22nd of June, 1857, was the first to enjoy the merits of artificial lighting. The system included 112 burners in the large rooms and 84 burners in the smaller rooms.

The Sheepshanks Gallery, South Kensington Museum (1876). Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Sheepshanks Gallery, South Kensington Museum (1876). Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fowke’s paid particular attention to lighting: he adjusted the proportions of the room so the daylight would not create unwanted reflections and glare and used gas lighting mainly to supplement daylight coming through the glazed roof apertures, positioning the gas pipe under the skylight, so the lighting effect is as similar to daylight as possible.

With the introduction of gas lighting the South Kensington Museum would extend its working hours until 10pm at night and Anon describes how the installation of artificial lighting led to record visitor numbers. That success would urge other UK museums to install gas lighting systems in order to supplement daylight and extend working hours. The new Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art build in 1854 would feature a gas lighting system, so did the Oxford University Museum opened in 1860. The Walker Art Gallery (1877), the Birmingham City Art Gallery (1885) and the Grosvenor Gallery (1880) would also accommodate gas lighting systems.

The Main Hall of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, (1880). Courtesy of National Museums of Scotland.

The Main Hall of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art, (1880). Courtesy of National Museums of Scotland.

Gas pipe fishtail burners detail. Courtesy of National Museums of Scotland.

Gas pipe fishtail burners detail. Courtesy of National Museums of Scotland.

The Industrial Hall, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, (1893). Courtesy of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

The Industrial Hall, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, (1893). Courtesy of
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Not long after the success of the implementation of gas lighting, electric lighting would be used for the illumination of museums and galleries. The South Kensington Museum installed the first electric lamp as soon as 1880 and so did the Museum of Practical Geology in 1881. The British Museum, the trustees of which have refused to consider gas lighting mainly due to fire hazard, was the first public building to be electrically lit, however it installed electric light in galleries around the same time with the South Kensington Museum (electric lighting was limited in the reading room and the courtyard) and on Thursday the 13th of March 1890, the “London Daily News” would write [18]:The Electric Light in the British Museum.

“No Money has ever been better spent than that which the House of Commons (both sides of it agreeing) voted last for the electric lighting of the British Museum. Some eight or nine years ago, the electric light was introduced into the beautiful reading-room and its approaches and also the courtyard. But no further extension of the new system of electric lighting was made until after last year’s Parliamentary discussion on the question of throwing open the museum to the public in the evenings….

…The gallery of Japanese painting also was seen to great advantage in the new light. But doubtless among the crowds of Mr Thompson’s visitors there must have been many to whom the electric light had its chief charm in the Greek, Roman and Egyptian and Assyrian galleries. We may be wrong, but it seemed to us some at least of the classical sculptures looked more characteristic, more like themselves, so to speak, under the new light than even in daylight.”

Print from a periodical featuring a view of the Egyptian sculpture gallery with new artificial lighting, entitled "Electric lighting of the British Museum" ( 1890). 'The Illustrated London News' p. 164. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Print from a periodical featuring a view of the Egyptian sculpture gallery with new artificial lighting, entitled “Electric lighting of the British Museum” ( 1890). ‘The Illustrated London News’ p. 164. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The Ashmolean Museum installed electric lighting in 1895 [198] while the Leeds Art City Gallery opened in 1888, was the first that has been built specifically with electric lighting. By the 1900, electricity had become the fuel of choice for illuminating interior spaces.

Gas lighting systems have revolutionised access to museums, however a report by Thorp would show that preliminary gas lighting systems in gallery spaces would provide average illumination levels of 0.7 foot-candles [6] a fraction of the threshold of human photopic vision. Early artificial lighting systems would not come without concerns.

Concerns about lighting in museums:

Minutes of the Commission to consider the subject of lighting picture galleries by gas, signed by Michael Faraday. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Minutes of the Commission to consider the subject of lighting picture galleries by gas, signed by Michael Faraday. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Burning gas in interior spaces introduced major challenges and questions. Indoor pollutants of gas effluvia, fire hazard and even high utility costs would be some of them. In the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art it was assumed that the fluctuations of temperature and humidity caused by the gas system amongst others, would cause the wooden displays to warp and allow combustion products and soot from gas burning and dust to enter the cases. Concerns about the use of gas in museums and galleries were addressed by a scientific commission chaired by Michael Faraday himself. Later, Faraday would conduct further experiments in response to the British Museum’s concerns. In both cases, Faraday would conclude that gas lighting is suitable for museums and galleries, however in his second report he would acknowledge the fire risk and suggested that gallery roofs should be constructed by steel and not timber. Temperature rise was also a concern for the use of gas lighting, investigated independently by Faraday and by Hoffman and Tyndall. All researchers would agree that temperature rise and fluctuations caused by gas lighting did not pose a significant risk for artworks.

The degrading effect of light on materials, watercolours in particular, was identified early on. Sir Arthur Church has conducted experiments as early as 1856. Sir J. Robinson, surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, suggested in 1886 that all water colour paintings of the South Kensington Museum should be only exhibited at night under dim electric lighting to avoid colour fading accusing the South Kensington Museum of negligence, a position that would trigger a public debate.

In response to Robinson’s claims, the South Kensington Museum (although publicly silent) ordered Abney and Russell to produce their later famous report on the action of light on water colours. Simultaneously, the Royal Society of Painters asked their members to report on the permanence of the pigments they were using. Russell and Abney found that the exposure of water colours to 3000 hours of mixed sunlight would be equivalent to 480 years of daylight in the galleries and 9600 years of gaslight. The Russell and Abney report was the most systematic approach to water colour photochemical degradation including experiments with filters to divide the spectrum, experiments with saturated and dry air and moist hydrogen. Russell and Abney found that sort wavelength radiance energy ( blue and violet ) is more damaging to water colours and that the presence of oxygen is essential for photochemical damage.

Following the report, the Raphael Cartoon Gallery (now room 94) was glazed with colour filters, altering the spectrum of the light and rendering it harmless to artworks. The new glazing produced a yellowish light and Lord Crawford would describe in 1923 the sensation of entering the gallery similar to entering a tomb. The new light remained until 1939 and the glazing was damaged during a WWII raid and was never replaced.

Photograph of the Ellison Gallery of watercolors, (1868). The South Kensington Museum installed curtains in 1864 that were let down when the museum was closed to the public. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Photograph of the Ellison Gallery of watercolors, (1868). The South Kensington Museum installed curtains in 1864 that were let down when the museum was closed to the public. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Late opening during and after the Great War

Before the Great war some of the United Kingdom Museum would stay open during the late evening hours to provide access to working class people, a practice that was not followed by their American and European counterparts that would generally close at 5pm. However, the practice stopped during the Great war: blacking out public buildings with large ceiling apertures would be impossible and in times of war, museums would also be unable to cover the large utility costs associated with artificial lighting. Economic depression after the war halted the boost for evening opening and only few museums would reinstate late evening openings some days per week. In modern days, museums have reintroduced evening opening, one day per month, as a means of attracting younger audiences.

 

Sources and further reading

British Museum, The Museum’s Story: Architecture http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/the_museums_story/architecture.aspx

Brommelle N, The Russell and Abney Report on the Action of Light on Water Colours. Studies in Conservation, 9:4, 140-152

Let there be light! Illuminating the V&A in the 19th century. http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/tales-archives/let-there-be-light-illuminating-va-nineteenth-century

Faraday, M., Hofmann [sic], A. W., Tyndall, J., Redgrave, R., and Fowke, F. (1859) Lighting Picture

Galleries by Gas. Report of the Commission appointed to consider the subject of Lighting Picture

Galleries by Gas. Parliamentary Papers, XV 106. 1859 Session 2 [reprinted as Appendix A to Fowke, 1866]

Gas Lighting, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_lighting

Hoffman, A. W. (1861) Picture Galleries (Lighting with Gas). Copies of recent Communications to the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Education by Professors Faraday, Tyndall, and

Hoffman, with respect to Lighting Picture Galleries with Gas. Return to an Order of the House of Lords, dated 15 July 1861. Lords Sessional Papers (Miscellaneous Subjects), XXII (195.) 1861, 187.

Let there be light! Illuminating the V&A in the 19th century. http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/tales-archives/let-there-be-light-illuminating-va-nineteenth-century

Swinney G (2007). Gas Lighting in british Museums and Galleries with Particular Reference to the Ediburgh Museum of Science and Art. Museum management and Curatorship, 18:2. 113-143

Swinney G (2002). Museums, Audiences and Display Technology Attitudes to artificial lighting in the nineteenth century. University Museums in Scotland Conference.

Physick, John (1982). The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of its Building

The Brisbane Courier, 13 March 1890, The National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/3519469

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: