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Museum Lighting Research Project Brings Together a Consortium of Institutions to Limit Damage to Light Sensitive Objects

September 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES—Every science project begins with a question...what if?  What if there were a way for a museum to display works on paper for a longer period of time simply by making changes to the light under which they are shown?  That’s the question being addressed by a current project being spearheaded by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), in conjunction with several other partners around the globe.

The Museum Lighting Research Project began in 2002 with the objective of studying the interaction between museum objects and light.  In doing so, the project is looking at expanding knowledge about three components that come between this interaction: the light source itself, the chemical states of materials in the object, and the casing around an object when it is on view.  Without touching the artifact or altering its chemical make-up, project participants are currently conducting studies to:

  • determine what can be done to reduce the total energy transferred to an object before light levels or color representation becomes unacceptable for public viewing;
  • extend our basic understanding of the range of pigments and dyes that might benefit from the removal of oxygen around an object when it is on view;
  • determine visitor preferences in low lighting situations;
  • monitor industry developments in new lighting resources, including (but not limited to) the rapidly expanding field of LEDs and other new lighting techniques that may have potential in a museum setting.

“There has been little done in changing the way we protect light sensitive objects from gallery lighting since the 1960s,” explains Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute.  “One of the most interesting things researchers on the project have found initially is that there are light filters currently available that most museums could use to lower the amount of light transmitted to an object on view that won’t have a noticeable impact on the display.  As the project progresses, we anticipate it will uncover additional steps that can be taken with minimal financial impact to an institution to help preserve the life of delicate objects on paper.”

Along with the GCI, the other partners on the project are the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Canadian Conservation Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Tate Britain, the University of Auckland, the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Yan Liu Research Laboratories.

The Museum Lighting Research Project consists of four research components:

Component One
The first research component involves investigating the feasibility of developing a single multi-coated light filter that will complement a range of color spectra in a representative series of old master drawings.  The work on this component is being led by Carl W. Dirk at the University of Texas at El Paso and involves the creation of software tools that calculate a spectral wavelength distribution while allowing for maximum color rendering in the object on view and optimizing various transmission and energy efficiencies.

Component Two
A natural corollary to the first component, the second component of the Museum Lighting Research Project involves looking at off-the-shelf solid glass filters to achieve the same results as a more customized approach.  The work on this portion of the project is being led by Terry Schaeffer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in collaboration with optical designer Yan Liu.

Component Three
The third component of the project, which is being carried out at the GCI, seeks to apply nearly 15 years of Getty experience in designing and building environmentally-controlled, oxygen-free display cases, to photochemical damage research.  For this portion of  the research, a pair of matched display cases, one with a normal atmosphere and one with a nitrogen atmosphere, are irradiated under banks of MR-16 lamps. 

Component Four
The final portion of the research is a series of visitor assessment studies conducted in an experimental lighting facility to test display aesthetics and visual performance for the filtered light sources described in the first two components.  The goal here is to determine how the different lighting filters are perceived by potential museum visitors under conditions similar to a gallery setting.  This work is currently underway at the Getty Center where a special mock-gallery setting has been created to test visitor experiences with art.

The work at the Getty Center is being supervised by project manager, Jim Druzik.  “This is a project that could not have been done well as recently as five to ten years ago,” explains Druzik.  “There have been a number of advances in the fields of color theory, spectral imaging technology, and computational methods that have only recently come together to allow us to better understand how simple adjustments in how we light works of art can have a long-lasting impact on their conservation.”

Druzik adds: “In many ways, this project is about using what we know about how visitors see color to trick the eye to see the same light sensitive object with less energy spent on its lighting.  This allows us to keep the visitor experience the same, while we better protect the object from the damaging effects of light.”

In 2007, the Museum Lighting Research Project will reach a pivotal stage when conservation professionals from around the world will gather for a lighting workshop to update and disseminate information garnered thus far through the project.  At that time, decisions can be made on the future direction of the project.

For more information on the Museum Lighting Research Project, visit the Getty Conservation Institute pages on the Getty website at:

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John Giurini/Julie Jaskol    
Getty Communications
310-440-7360 or

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