The Conservation of Light: Managing a collection of light-based artwork

Abigail Duckor, Charlotte Eng, and Terry Schaffer
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


Light has a long history of use in art, but as a medium it can pose many new challenges for conservators. As soon as lighting technology becomes available on the market, it is being manipulated in contemporary art. Equally as fast, the production of these light sources becomes obsolete with the introduction of new technological innovations and additional lighting regulations.  Since it is necessary to recognize artificial light sources as artists’ media, it is essential to characterize them systematically in order to enable the preservation and appropriate presentation of a diverse range of light sources.

To meet the challenges of the growing collections of light-based works in museums, a documentation approach is needed. This will be necessary to maintain the original light effects of these works, particularly given the rapid changes in lighting technologies. Research was undertaken at Glasgow Museums to develop a solution for the care of the museum’s collection of light-based artwork. The study evaluated whether the use of an inventory is a practical and effective way to manage a collection of light-based works in an institution. The assessment revealed many complexities when documenting various lamp types but that an inventory is a suitable strategy for managing the vital upkeep of replacement light components.
This documentation approach is currently being refined as it is applied to the collection of light-based works in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where scientific instrumentation is also available. At LACMA, spectral light meters are routinely used to characterize the spectral outputs of new LED bulbs for gallery lighting. The spectral and colorimetric information that these meters provide would also be useful for lights incorporated in works of art to monitor them as they age or to evaluate replacement bulbs.

By combining the documentation strategy with scientific data on light sources, it is possible to objectively characterize light when it is used as a medium in works of art. This approach will better inform conservation decision-making and lead to enhanced preservation of light-based art objects in the future.

Abigail Duckor
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation
Los Angeles, CA

Charlotte Eng
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Conservation Scientist
Studio City, CA

Terry Schaffer
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Research Scientist (Retired)
Granada Hills, CA