43rd Annual Meeting, General Session, Track C: Year of Light, “Shedding Light on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Lighting Project,” Holly Salmon

Holly Salmon, Objects Conservator, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, presented a fast-paced, engaging, and informative review of the Gardner Museum’s ongoing lighting project; she co-authored the talk with James Labeck, the lighting designer (TEND, LLC) who worked with the museum. Salmon began the talk with a brief history of how the building was lit, in Mrs. Gardner’s time and the early museum years, and a quote (which I may have paraphrased) from a letter from Gardner to Bernard Berenson, “You have no idea how difficult it is to arrange light satisfactorily.” Her museum “descendants” clearly agree with her and are working hard towards that lighting goal.
As early as 1925, the museum had installed screening and bamboo curtains to reduce daylight. Later these were replaced by ultraviolet-filtering films and temporary black-out shades. While working to reduce daylight, museum staff was also introducing electric lighting. Previous museum staff had converted some historic lamps to run on electricity and created some amusing ad-hoc lights.
The recent lighting project began in 2004 and was completed in 2012, although as Salmon mentioned at the end of her talk, the Gardner staff continue to (re-)evaluate and improve lighting in the museum. In looking at how the museum was lit, staff and consultants looked at atmosphere, intent, visitor experience, and conservation. For the AIC audience, Salmon said that of course conservation was the most important factor! In reality, it was clear that for all involved, all of these factors were important. They wanted to create lighting that would give visitors a sense of how Gardner (might have) intended the rooms to look and make the works on display and the rooms look good, while giving the objects the best protection from light damage.
The lighting project began with a light survey, using hand-held light monitors and light dataloggers, on which they recorded a year’s worth of light. The project’s second phase included major improvements to the wiring infrastructure, bringing all of the museum wiring up to modern standards and providing a master control to provide great flexibility for controlling the lighting. Lighting design and mock-ups of the design were the third and fourth phases. The designers created designs for each room. Working with museum staff, they tested and revised designs as needed. Salmon showed an example of a particularly challenging corridor gallery that went through at least three iterations of design to achieve the desired look.
To accomplish their goals, project staff approached lighting by thinking about it in layers. The first layer was the exterior light. All of the windows had ultraviolet protection. Before the project the museum also had light-colored linen shades on the windows, which created what they called “light bombs” that made it harder for visitors’ eyes to adjust to interior lighting. In the lighting project, they replaced these shades with translucent sunscreens that permitted visitors to see outside. (Salmon pointed out how visitors had always pulled at the edges of the older shades so they could see the outside.)They also fitted the windows with dark shades for when the museum is closed; where there are fragile collections near the windows, the shades are remote controlled.
The second layer was historic light. The fixtures that had previously been converted to electricity were remodeled (and/or rewired) to give better and safer light. These fixtures are now used as Gardner would have used them. For example a “candelabra” would only be lit for evenings or dark days, rather than turning on its electric bulbs all the time.
The third layer was viewing and ambient light. This was the “layer” where the project staff tried to light the collections so they could be seen well but where the lighting was not obtrusive. The overall goal was to have consistent (feeling/looking) light throughout the museum. Salmon showed the example of the newly restored Tapestry Room. They installed track lighting to showcase the objects and added recessed lighting to add ambient light, to avoid spotlighting effects.
A slide near the end of the talk read:
1. Too
2. Many
3. To
4. List.
Nonetheless, Salmon did discuss some of the challenges of the project. These ranged from trying to encompass all points of view, through working on lighting while the given room was open (as opposed to closed for a given time for room restoration). Work in “open” rooms occurred during hours the museum was closed, entailing more staff hours for moving (and re-moving) collections and cleaning during the work.
Salmon acknowledged that the Gardner still has the challenges of light-sensitive pieces on permanent or long-term display, a challenge that is quite familiar to me and to all who work with historic house museums. She noted that they have been moving towards using high quality reproductions for some of these pieces, a decision they do not take lightly, but one that has precedence going back to Mrs. Gardner’s time.
The last part of the project addresses reversibility and reassessment. Salmon noted that they are already revisiting some rooms to make further improvements; this is primarily happening in rooms that they are continuing to restore to their Gardner-era appearance.
Clearly, a project of this scale involved a lot of people and a lot of funds. Salmon and co-author Labeck thanked all of their museum colleagues and major contractors (Cannon-Brookes Lighting & Design and Tamagna & Dipietro Electrical Contractors). They gave credit for support of this 1.65 million dollar capital project to the funders, including the Jane’s Trust, Save America’s Treasures, Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and the Richard C von Hess Foundation. (CHECK THESE!)
While this talk focused on one museum, it described an approach to looking at lighting that could be used by many museums. I will be hoping to see this talk in print in JAIC before too long.