The Conserv Guide To Museum Lighting

All the basics you need to know about museum lighting for heritage preservation.

What do you know about museum lighting, light damage, light bulbs, and light monitoring for preservation? If the answer is, “Not as much as I would like!”, this guide is perfect for you.

The Conserv Team includes six conservators with several joint decades of museum, archaeological dig, and private practice experience in 4 different continents. We have found that while temperature and relative humidity are common and relatively well-understood by collections care practitioners around the world, lighting knowledge is less common, and by extension, more daunting.

Generally speaking, we are all mostly aware that we should choose LEDs over other types of light bulbs. We know that light damage is irreversible and cumulative. We know that natural light and many light bulbs emit UV and IR, which are both damaging. While we take care to take spot measurements of lux during installation to make sure objects are not getting too much direct light exposure, many of us have not gotten to the point where we actually monitor light levels over time and feel comfortable about our light monitoring program.

So we’d like to welcome you to our guide on museum lighting!

Balancing Light Levels in Museums & Preventive Conservation Goals

Maintaining appropriate light levels in museums is crucial for both the preservation of artifacts and the visitor experience. By carefully managing the intensity of light falling on objects, museums can prevent damage caused by excessive exposure while still providing sufficient visibility.

Light levels should be balanced to ensure the longevity of delicate materials and prevent fading or discoloration. Additionally, understanding the specific light requirements of different types of artifacts, such as paintings, sculptures, or textiles, is essential for implementing effective preventive conservation strategies.

In this article, we present some basic vocabulary and definitions around light that you must be aware of to enable you to make the best decisions for your exhibition and preservation goals. We talk about optimal levels of light and some techniques to reduce light exposure.

Get some tips to help you decide on museum light levels for your spaces.

Measuring Museum Art Lighting With Data Loggers & Sensors

As a museum professional, you understand there is a delicate balance of lighting when it comes to preserving artworks and artifacts. Light damage is irreversible, so dark storage and display hours must be managed thoughtfully. To achieve this goal without compromising general public accessibility, accurate measurement of light exposure is crucial.

Data loggers and sensors play a vital role in this process, allowing real-time monitoring of museum art lighting. By collecting data over time, these electronic devices provide valuable insights into light levels throughout the day, enabling professionals to make informed decisions.

Whether it’s identifying excessive light in exhibition spaces, assessing the performance of lighting systems, or determining the need for modern LED lights, data loggers can empower you to optimize energy efficiency and sustainability while adhering to your lighting budget targets.

This short article addresses the characteristics you must take into consideration before buying data loggers for light and UV measurement. It’s important to select a device that integrates well with your existing systems and offers the desired connectivity options.

Read more about the practical differences between data loggers and spot measurements for light and UV.

Museum Lighting Design: A Comparison of Natural and Artificial Light Sources

When it comes to museum lighting design, finding the right balance between natural and artificial light sources is crucial. Natural light can create a captivating ambiance and highlight the beauty of artworks, but it also brings the risk of harmful UV radiation and uncontrolled fluctuations. Some people consider natural lighting “free” although this will actually depend on what systems you use to manage it.

On the other hand, artificial light provides more control over intensity and color temperature, allowing curators to create a consistent and controlled lighting environment. LED lighting technology has evolved into a recommended choice for museums due to its energy efficiency, low to no UV and IR emissions, long lifespan, and the ability to customize color rendering properties. However, it’s important to consider the specific lighting needs of different exhibits and strike a balance that preserves the artifacts while creating an engaging visitor experience.

Designing museum lighting requires a thoughtful approach that considers the preservation of objects alongside the visual impact on visitors. Factors such as light intensity, color temperature, and spectral distribution need to be carefully considered. While natural light can add a unique touch to exhibits, precautions should be taken to minimize UV exposure through UV-filtering glazing or window treatments.

Artificial light sources, such as LEDs, offer greater control and flexibility, but the quality of the light and adherence to conservation guidelines are crucial. Not all LEDs are created the same, and cheap ones can be just as bad as other types of bulbs. Ultimately, finding the right combination of natural and artificial light sources requires a nuanced understanding of lighting design principles and a commitment to preserving the integrity of museum collections while engaging and inspiring visitors.

Find some examples of combined artificial and natural lighting systems in museums.

Best Museum Light Bulbs To Support Preventive Conservation

Once you have figured out how to balance both the amount of light and the type of light you need, how do you select the appropriate light bulbs for museum display to support preventive conservation efforts? We have already mentioned LEDs are considered the best for museum lighting, but this does not mean you already have them. So does this mean you are forced to buy new ones with your limited budget? Not necessarily!

This post explores the various types of light bulbs commonly found in museums and historic properties, such as incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, and LED bulbs. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type, considering factors like color rendering, color temperature, UV and IR radiation, energy efficiency, and lifespan.

Among these options, LED light bulbs are still recommended as they emit minimal UV and IR radiation, have a long lifespan, consume less energy, and offer a wide range of color rendering properties. However, be aware that research by the Canadian Conservation Institute has shown that not all LED bulbs are equal and advises selecting those that meet quality standards and guidelines for museum use. Be especially wary of older LEDs from before 2018.

Learn the basics about different types of bulbs for museum lighting.

How LED Lighting For Museums Helps Conservation & Sustainability

So it’s true. Ultimately, LED lighting has emerged as the most recommended solution for museums and cultural heritage institutions to display and preserve valuable artifacts during exhibition. But why? We have already mentioned their range of benefits, but in addition to their reduced UV and IR radiation and their excellent color rendering properties, LEDs can also mean improved energy savings over time, longer lifespan and reduced maintenance costs. In a time when sustainability is just as important as preservation, this makes LEDs extremely attractive.

LEDs can also provide accurate color representation, allowing for faithful reproduction of object colors. The dimmable and programmable nature of many LED lighting systems allows flexibility in controlling light levels and exposure time. With their longer lifespan, LED lights require fewer replacements, resulting not only in lower maintenance costs but, by extension, reduced potential for accidental damage to collections. Any reduction in staff having to access difficult areas to change light bulbs will translate to increased safety for the objects.

Does this mean you should go out and buy the cheapest LED you can find because that will be better than the halogen bulbs you have now? Not necessarily! Specifications will make all the difference.

Find out what specifications you should be looking for before you buy new museum LEDs.

Choosing Museum Lights for Paintings – 7 Aspects To Consider

Let’s pick one particular type of object to talk about light. Paintings are one of those objects ubiquitous in heritage collections. They can be found in collections that range from historical houses to archives, museums and galleries. They are particular due to their multimaterial, multilayer composition and the fact that many include a frame as well. Choosing the right museum lights for paintings is a crucial decision in balancing preservation and display. The wrong light at the wrong angle or distance can create serious problems beyond just the fading of the colors.

The unique composition of each painting requires specific lighting conditions to ensure visibility, color accuracy, and longevity. Several aspects must be considered when selecting museum lights, including the light spectrum and color rendering for accurate color representation, minimizing UV and IR emission to prevent deterioration, maintaining appropriate illuminance levels for visibility and preservation, controlling the beam angle and directionality for uniform lighting, addressing flicker and dimming capabilities, managing heat output to avoid expansion or warping, and considering energy efficiency and cost implications.

By carefully considering these aspects, collections care professionals can create optimal lighting conditions that protect and showcase paintings in museum settings, while also considering factors such as staff availability, maintenance costs, and environmental sustainability.

Get trustworthy resources to learn more about what to look for when lightning paintings.

Museum Lighting Guidelines – 7 Open Access Articles To Help Your Collection

While humidity and temperature are better understood by collections care practitioners, knowledge around light measurements, settings, and equipment is often less common or considered more complicated, and therefore, less accessible. Information about light in museums is generally found in books or more technical conferences for lighting engineers where heritage professionals are less likely to attend.

Luckily, there are several open access articles available that delve into various aspects of museum lighting. These resources cover topics such as selecting the right lighting technology, considering color temperature and its effect on color appearance, assessing the stability of paint formulations under LED lighting, and the aesthetic and conceptual aspects of lighting in exhibitions.

We hope that by exploring these freely available articles, heritage professionals can gain valuable insights and develop their own museum lighting guidelines to ensure the preservation and aesthetic presentation of their collections.

Take me to the free articles on museum lighting!

Museum Lighting Color Temperature – Warm Or Cold?

The Correlated Color Temperature (CCT), also just called color temperature, is measured in degrees Kelvin and determines the hue or visual “warmth” or “coolness” of a light. In other words, whether the light is blueish or more orange.

Color temperature in a museum can affect visitor experience by encouraging certain moods or even affecting the color rendering of the art being observed. For this reason, it is important to take several issues into consideration when choosing the correct light bulbs for an exhibition. Your choice will be affected by your institution, the artworks on display, the themes, the original intent or context of the artist and even just the preference or profile of your visitors.

This article explores different aspects to take into account when choosing color temperature as well as considerations of quality, preservation, and bulb types.

Take me to the free tips on choosing bulb temperatures!


Temperature and humidity are classic agents of change (or deterioration) that most collections care practitioners are both conscious of and somewhat comfortable with. This is not the case with light damage. While we have all come to understand that light damage is both cumulative and irreversible, this has not always translated to an in-depth understanding of how to manage the changes, and the measurement and management of light exposure is not as prioritized.

The articles above are a selection of the various posts we have written with the intention of breaking down the different aspects surrounding light management in heritage settings.

Did you know that our conservation liaison, Claire Winfield, was in charge of her institution’s light monitoring efforts? You can talk to her about your concerns in the Community.

Contact us directly to schedule a demo, or explore our blog to learn more about museum lighting and other key topics in preventative care for collections.

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