Art Class: Gallery & Museum Lighting 101

Mar 2, 2023

Museums are the caretakers of our cultural history. By curating and preserving visual artwork from centuries of masters, these institutions help tell the story of humanity.

But no matter how compelling or unique the museum display ideas are, one element that deeply affects the experience of art is museum quality lighting.

The lighting pros at TCP have great appreciation for the world of art, stemming from our deep understanding of museum and gallery lighting design. Read on for our insight into the various types of museum lighting that help create a moving and memorable connection to the paintings, sculpture and other creations on display in these storehouses of artistic history.

Narrative: Storytelling with Lighting in Museums

Every piece of artwork tells a story. The best museum display ideas take a meta view of storytelling, leading visitors through a narrative of cultural significance. The various roles played by lighting in museums include:

  •  Attracting visitors with effective outdoor lights
  •  Guiding visitors through an experience with the chiaroscuro of light and dark spaces
  •  Creating a mood with color temperature and light composition
  •  Highlighting timeless treasures with the use of focal points
  •  Balancing culture and sustainability with choices focused on the middle ground

Color Theory: CRI & Museum Quality Lighting

Remember the color wheel from art class? It’s the foundation of color theory, which covers the ways warm and cool colors interact with, complement and influence each other. When it comes to choosing museum LED lighting — the benefits of which we’ll cover in more depth in a moment — it’s important to consider each bulb’s Color Rendering Index, aka CRI. This refers to a scale of 1 to 100 that indicates how a light affects the color of the objects it illuminates. Bright, clear daylight achieves a score of 100 and sets the bar for the truest color rendering. Lower scores indicate warmer light that may imbue paintings or other objects with yellow or pink tones.

When developing museum lighting guidelines, skilled curators must decide on a CRI that allows both an accurate depiction of the work and a comfortable experience for visitors.

Composition: Artful Gallery Lighting Design

Composing a gallery lighting design that is both visually powerful and cost effective can be a challenge. However, the many benefits of switching to LED lights make it easier to achieve a good balance between those two objectives. Museum LED lighting doesn’t emit the heat of incandescents or fluorescents, so it is less likely to damage delicate pieces. It also offers a wide range of CRIs and uses a fraction of the energy of other bulb choices.

Consider these LED options for a variety of museum lighting applications:

Perspective: Spotlights

Spotlights put the visual focus on a single object, like a freestanding sculpture, while minimizing the surrounding areas. Their intense beam can highlight contrasts between light and shadow, offering maximum impact for viewers. Find LED PAR lamps from TCP in a range of CRIs and color temperatures with dimmable options available for nearly any spotlight arrangement. Or try TruColor when a high CRI is a must.

Scale: Track Lighting

Due to the temporary nature of traveling exhibits, any gallery lighting design must include an element of flexibility. Gallery track lighting is a great choice because the individual lamps can quickly and easily be moved along the track or shifted to cover a wide range of angles. Many different LED bulbs can be used in this type of museum lighting setup, including the PAR, A and BR lamp series from TCP. Consult the individual fixture to determine its best fit.

Tromp L’Oeil: Recessed Lights

Originating in the early 1800s, tromp l’oeil is a technique that tricks the viewer into believing a flat painting has the depth and dimension of a three-dimensional space. The term translates from French as “fool the eye,” and recessed ceiling lights comprise similarly illusory types of museum lighting. These discrete lights virtually disappear into the background while helping create a distinct mood with dimming capabilities and a wide range of available sizes.

Realism: Lights for Lobbies, Cafeteria, Parking & Other Areas

Though selecting the right museum lighting for paintings and other exhibits is important, these institutions often serve a dual function as community gathering spaces. That means putting careful thought into museum LED lighting options for parking lots, classrooms, auditoriums and more. Transform your lobby from a bright and welcoming daytime entryway into a warm and inviting soiree venue with the flick of a switch by choosing the Select8 Tube Series that features three color temperature settings. And don’t forget emergency lights, which help protect both visitors and valuable artwork when there’s a power outage, weather event or other unforeseen complication.

Visual Rhythm: Quality Lighting Options From TCP

TCP has long been an industry innovator and supporter of the arts. We’re proud to offer brilliant, cost-effective museum LED lighting options that help tell the story of humanity while ensuring our most valuable institutions remain accessible to everyone. Explore all our commercial LED lighting categories for the bulbs and fixtures that deliver beautiful technology and meaningful savings to meet your high museum lighting standards.

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