Museum Exhibits – Why Are Some So Dark?

totem in museum, copyright Georgios Michalogiorgakis

This past weekend, I was at the Field Museum in Chicago and wandered into some of the least popular, darkest exhibits that the museum houses. Both the Ancient Americas and Pacific Spirits exhibits are quiet, dark, with very old pieces of clothing and art.

But wait, why are these exhibits so dark? The dinosaur exhibit is brightly lit, popular, and wide open, where these cultural history exhibits are exactly the opposite. Where lights are always on in the dino section, some lights are motion-activated in the American Indian and Pacific Islands areas.

The reason for this is that light can damage the old artifacts in the museum. Dinosaur bones — real or replicas — are much hardier and resistant to the effects of light damage (after all, they’ve survived millions of years of much more destructive natural phenomena). Clothing or wooden masks made with natural paint can become faded and damaged with too much exposure to light.

Dyes are especially damaged by light, as colors can fade permanently. With some artifacts in a museum having been collected in the 1800s, by the time we see them in 2014, they are a poor representation of the original piece. This is why museums dim the lights in these exhibits, although even that will not save the objects entirely.

Another easily noticeable aspect of these exhibits was the very “warm” light that was used, especially when only motion sensors activated lights at all. This is because orange filters are more protective of objects, as they filter out the blue part of the spectrum. Of course, seeing everything with an orangish hue further distorts the color the objects.

“Seeing versus saving” is an important concept for museum curators. So, next time you find yourself at a museum and feel that it’s too dark in a certain section, remember how much effort has been put into the lighting just to protect the objects. Too much light over time will fade colors faster, cause weakening of materials, and heats up artifacts making them hotter than the optimum temperature for preservation.

One particularly disturbing thing I came across was a person shining a bright LED flashlight straight into exhibits to see them better. Hopefully, knowing that blue light is more destructive than the warm light used in these exhibits, you won’t do the same! There’s always a dinosaur bone or submarine to wander to if you prefer brighter exhibits over darker ones.

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Nick Heeringa

Nick is a writer, publisher and editor for the Topbulb blog. Check back often for more of his writing on lighting applications and announcements for the Topbulb website and blog!