Four Ways Museum Consultants Increase Performance and Sales With Lighting

I remember the first time a piece of art moved me.

I was standing in front of Francisco de Zurburan’s “Agnus Dei”, a small, unassuming painting hung in one of the European rooms at the San Diego Museum of Art. The painting was so powerful, I could not move. I was there for at least 20 minutes and, after I left, I bought a museum membership.

There are two things I remember about the visual nature of that moment: the painting itself and the lighting.

The way that the light blanketed the painting made me feel like I was at the museum alone, in my own space, given my own privacy to understand and internalize the painting before me.

“The play of light and dark can be used to great effect in display environments. Dramatic tension can be created in a darkened exhibition space thanks to narrow beams of light cutting through the darkness, drawing the visitors’ gaze to the pieces on display,” Sylvania’s museum lighting guide says.

This is the magic of museum lighting. It’s not just a technical choice; it’s a decision that will influence the way your visitors appreciate your exhibits. And their appreciation leads to paid memberships.

Because lighting is so crucial to the visitor and member experience (and retention), It’s important to understand how lighting can increase performance and sales.

Switching to LED Lighting Saves Money

Scott Rosenfeld is the lighting designer and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.

In a Nov. 2019 webinar about museums and LED lighting, he talked about how he’s switched his lighting from incandescent to LED.

One of the key metrics he relishes regarding the switch to LED is efficacy. This factor measures lumens divided by watts, which tells you how many lumens you get out of each watt. LED lights are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs.

“One of the great things that I’ve enjoyed working and transition to LEDs is the chance to save energy and the chance to reduce pollution,” he said. “It really makes it worthwhile what we’re doing here. These things are getting more and more efficient and efficacy should absolutely be one of the criteria you’re looking at.”

His goal is to replace incandescent bulbs with LED lights that save 70% to 80% of the museum’s lighting costs.

A great example of an LED bulb that offers great efficiency and savings is the Soraa 3000K 7.5-watt LED GU5.3 light. These lights are meant to replace high-consumption halogen bulbs you may be using right now.

The beauty of these lights is that they provide up to 85% savings compared to your halogen lights, and they provide 84 lumens per watt, which is an incredible efficiency rating. This light’s equivalent halogen light would provide about a tenth of that efficiency.

One intriguing case study about LED’s ability to save your museum money comes from a presentation by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Naomi J. Miller at the 2011 National Archives and Records Administration’s 25th Annual Preservation Conference.

Miller’s presentation analyzed the cost savings the Field Museum experienced when it transition from incandescent to LED in their Brooker Gallery:

Halogen LED
Total initial cost $7,645 $8,216
Annual hours of operation 2912 2912
Operating power of lighting system 836 335
Annual operating cost $292.13 $116.99
Payback from lighting (years) N/A 3.26
Payback from lighting & HVAC (Years) N/A 2.38
Lifespan (years) N/A 17.17


LED lighting pays itself back in 2.38 years because it runs more efficiently and generates far less heat than halogen lamps.

The Getty Museum did a similar study and found that switching from halogen to LED lamps reduced power use by 83% and a lifetime cost savings of more than $9,800.

Lighting Preserves Your Paintings…or Damages Them

The Sistine Chapel is a spellbinding place, but in the early 80’s it literally lost its luster. Years of exposure to sunlight and candle smoke had turned the chapel’s once vibrant ceiling into a dulled version of its former self. The chapel ceiling needed a thorough cleaning.

“For hundreds of years, the chapel and its frescoes were lit by the 12 windows high on the walls and by an endless array of candles, whose smoke coated the delicately painted plaster with layer on layer of oily soot mingled with dust and other pollutants from the streets of Rome,” Architectural Lighting magazine noted in 2014.

In 1986, restorationists came in and carefully cleaned the plaster, restoring Michaelangelo’s work to its former glory.

Your museum likely doesn’t have to deal with candles, street-borne pollutants and millions of visitors. What you do have to worry about, though, is how your lighting affects your artwork.

The data we showed earlier indicates that heat is a major issue with halogen lighting, and that heat is directly related to UV and/or IR light present in halogen and incandescent lighting. That heat can cause damage to your exhibitions, Konica Minolta points out.

“Typical damage occurs from radiant heat causing a rise in temperature. This forms a reaction on the surface of an object such as cracking, lifting and color changing in the paint used to create the works of art we enjoy on museum walls,” the company wrote in a post about museum lighting.

Architectural Lighting goes into greater detail about how light can damage paintings, tapestries and other works.

“Organic materials such as wood, textiles, leather and paper, are just some of the more vulnerable items,” they write. “Designing to recommended light levels, eliminating dangerous UV light and reducing exposure to lighting-related heat emissions are key considerations that need to be addressed in order to lengthen the life of the object. Conservation issues should be a priority for any lighting designer working on a museum project.”

Lighting Enhances the Visitor’s Experience

The ability for light to honor and accent the work of the artists in your exhibitions is one that you shouldn’t underestimate.

Ylva Rouse, senior curator at MOCA Jacksonville, said lighting is what leads a visitor into an experience with the artwork. MOCA chose to use LED lights as spotlights, rather than using two rows of light to wash the wall around the work and spotlight it, too.

“Here we use spotlighting. It tends to bring out the work and draw you in so that you experience the artwork more as a world unto itself, Rouse said. “You are in the work that’s going on in the canvas or sculpture in a more focused way.”

Some of the challenges you can face, she said, include situations in which the artist or the space demands low lumen output. The example Rouse used was a 30-lumen maximum output. With such low levels of light available, you have to get creative.

Part of the solution is finding the right lighting person, Rouse noted.

“It’s really important to have a great light guy…Some people have a really great eye and they are a pleasure to work with,” she said. “Others have a harder time and you have to kind of lead them.”

Another aspect of that is choosing the right lighting to meet the challenges the artist, space or exhibit presents.

For example, our collection of MR16 bulbs include a variety of reliable LED and halogen options that give you the flexibility you need to meet the challenges you face at your museum.

The RAB 7W LED MR16 is an excellent representation of the versatility our products offer. The light is dimmable to 20% and it can last up to 25,000 hours. So, you’re guaranteed a bulb that you can dim to meet the needs of a variety of situations. It will last longer than halogen and incandescent bulbs. And, the bulb can save you up to 85% over its 50W halogen counterpart.

The Next Step: Work With Us

Our concierge team can tell you everything you need to know about which products our museum customers. Plus, we can work with you to come up with a lighting system to retrofit your existing halogen or incandescent lights. And, finally, if you’re starting from scratch, we can help build a lighting plan than keeps your exhibitions in excellent shape, saves you money and converts satisfied visitors into paying members.

Contact us today through our website or by calling us at 800-482-0303 to start your consultation.

Too busy to call 1-800-482-0303 or can’t find something on our website? Click the button below to schedule the best time to receive a project assessment, pricing, and availability.


About the Author

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *