Countless tourists and art lovers admire works of art in museums each year, but part of what makes that possible is something few people think about: lighting.
George Sexton III, however, not only thinks about museum lighting, but also designs it. As principal of George Sexton Associates in Washington, D.C., he has worked with more than 150 museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, in the past 26 years. In a lecture he delivered at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art last week, Mr. Sexton explained the challenges of his art. There is a significant difference, he explained, "between what your eye sees and what actually illuminates the object."
Mr. Sexton said the first thing most directors ask for is flexibility. That leads to the "ubiquitous" track lighting because it is movable and affordable. To make it more interesting, Mr. Sexton has dealt with track lighting in different ways. At the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, England, designed by architect Norman Foster, Mr. Sexton recessed the lighting system.
At MoMA, a client of eight years, Mr. Sexton employed miniaturized track lighting that, he said, "substantially reduced the visual clutter." The smaller size reduced the awareness of the source of light and placed more emphasis on the object.
Another topic of great importance in his work is the balance between presentation and preservation of objects. Whereas conservators often want reduced light, to limit the damage to objects, the public wants a great deal of illumination. To meet both demands, museums typically establish a set of rules regarding light. Works on paper need lower levels than inorganic objects like stone and metal, which can withstand almost any level of lighting.
One of the new challenges in lighting museums today is the variety of roles and functions that institutions play in today's cultural landscape. Museums have started to rent their space for dinners, receptions, banquets, and weddings.
Then there are the auditoriums and conference rooms where slide lectures, press conferences, and other events are held. Moreover, museums are also workspaces for curators and employees, so they also have needs of office buildings.
"Museum shops are being illuminated more and more like the galleries," he said. Because some museum shops have a high-end retail function, they need to be lighted as though one were designing an exhibition of products.
Should museums have windows on the side? They offer views of the outside world and give relief to museumgoers, but artificial lighting gives a museum more flexibility.
To design his approach to a museum's lighting, Mr. Sexton said he tests his ideas by using "large scale models."
Mr. Sexton opened the program by discussing a book called "In Praise of Shadow" by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1966), in which the author discusses the aesthetic beauty that comes from darkness and shadow in traditional Japanese culture. Tanizaki's book about the beauty of shadow, Mr. Sexton averred, can hold certain clues about how to think about lighting objects in museums today.
Tanizaki wrote the book after being disturbed by the new emphasis of bright lighting as a way of increasing productivity in Japan. He felt it was important to hold onto the sense of beauty that had come about with the beauties of shadow.
Tanizaki's reflections on the mystery of darkness can offer insight into an appreciation of objects under low light conditions in museums, Mr. Sexton said. For example, Tanizaki believed a brightly lit room with bright shiny tableware diminished one's appetite by half. In a museum, Mr. Sexton analogized, one is offering up objects for a viewer's taste and appetite.