In the battle between conservators and presentation in an exhibition daylight can be a contentious issue. Resolving seemingly contradictory demands requires a delicate touch and a plentiful supply of ingenuity….
To me, daylight is always the hero. Nothing can match the variety, intensity and sheer life-enhancing loveliness of daylight. If it is possible to live and work without artificial light, then do it. My own studio is designed so that we can work in daylight alone for much of the year.
And there’s the rub. Daylight is capricious. Summer sunlight can be too intense, causing physical damage to delicate artefacts and creating an intensity that is difficult to bear, while winter darkness leaves few options.
For exhibition designers of the 1960s and 1970s, craving uniformity and control, the solution was to eliminate natural light as much as possible. When we are working on refurbishment projects for museums and galleries it is commonplace for us to find blacked-out windows, heavy blinds and boxed-in exhibition spaces.
The 21st century takes a more naturalistic approach, appreciating that the visitor experience is much improved when there is a connection with the outside environment. Views through windows allow geographic orientation, while a subconscious awareness of the changing light outside retains a reassuring connection with time and atmosphere.
And beyond the practicalities, my own view is that something so amazing should be celebrated and welcomed into every space. The challenge lies in controlling daylight’s negative characteristics while exploiting the positives to the fullest possible degree.
Ultra Violet and strong sunlight are acknowledged enemies of the ancient artefact – but both of these can be excluded without losing the magical touch of a diffuse daylight. The scale of the challenge depends largely on the architecture and the orientation of the spaces.
When we worked on lighting the new European Galleries for the V&A our most time-consuming task was designing the day light control for the large South-facing windows. Each one was modelled and tested in a daylight simulation chamber to check its effect and each set of adjustable shutters and blinds was engineered individually in response to its unique location. The result was to reconnect the galleries with the outside world, making the spaces a living environment rather than the isolated and disorientating boxes they had become.
On another occasion, considering one floor of a multi-storey office building used to display architectural models, we were faced with a room whose ceiling was stuffed with spotlights while huge windows made the most of panoramic views. The aim was to highlight the models, and the designers had simply added more and more spotlights to try and achieve that effect. The result was ever more brightness without achieving the highlighting that was required.
Our solution was to limit the quantity of light pouring through the windows without compromising on those amazing views. This was achieved with the judicious application of window film - producing a result similar to putting on a pair of sunglasses: distracting uncomfortable glare removed and a soft lighting created in which spotlights were able to do their job, providing the punchy emphasis required for the models.
Window film, blinds, shades – we’ve even been known to build a wall to block direct light – are often the starting points for the lighting designer. Creating a canvas of controlled daylight allows us then to build the artwork. Good lighting for any gallery always starts with the daylight – ensuring that daylight remains the hero of the scheme.