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Vital Signs Project: A Lighting Study of Three Museums

Lighting and Visual Comfort in Three
San Francisco Bay Area Museums


This report analyzes the lighting qualities in three San Francisco Bay area museums; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and the University Art Museum in Berkeley.

View of the bridge and skylight at the top of the central atrium
in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (68 k jpeg)

Lighting in museums and art galleries plays a key role in a visitor's ability to perceive and enjoy both the artifacts in a museum and the building in total. In order to develop a successful lighting scheme, a museum lighting designer must satisfy many conflicting design requirements. Their primary concern is effectively illuminating artwork, but they can be constrained by energy conservation standards which require light levels below 15 foot candles in some exhibit spaces. As an additional concern, they must consider the visual comfort of visitors. It is this last criteria that this report explores.

A lack of consideration for the visual comfort of visitors on a designer's part can potentially handicap an individual's ability to view displays. Dramatic variations in light levels from exhibit to exhibit, or from exterior to interior, can affect a visitor's ability to appreciate artwork because the human eye requires several minutes to adjust to large changes in light levels. Sharply contrasting light levels between a bright entry and a dark gallery can be very disturbing, and potentially even painful.

To some extent, each of these three museums uses daylight to illuminate exhibits, possibly because natural light generally creates a more positive effect on a space than electric light. This is important because the light quality can affect an individual's emotional state which in turn may affect his or her perception of the artwork. While uniform light levels throughout a space can create comfortable viewing conditions, it can potentially cause a viewer to lose interest. Some strategic variations in light levels, even though they may cause discomfort, might be an ammenity because they can make a space more visually interesting. Herein lies the challenge to the lighting designer: to achieve a delicate balance between consideration of visual comfort and creating interesting and desirable spaces.

This project presents a quick evaluation of lighting quality in these three prominent museums and compares several visitor's reported visual comfort on a typical path through some exhibit spaces. This study is limited to a brief analysis of a series of light level measurements and personal observations from a few individuals during the month of November 1995.

As discussed above, the goal of this study is to gain an understanding of the use of light in the museums through a brief evaluation--this is not a long-range, comprehensive project. However, the results from this study should still give some insight into a typical visitor's experience in each of these three buildings.

Questions for Investigation

This research project has three main concerns: visual comfort from space to space, visual comfort within a single space, and light use for architectural space-making. The findings from this investigation hopefully take a first step toward understanding each of these concerns in all three museums.

Visual comfort while moving from space to space

  • When considering a typical circulation route through each of the three museums, how does light vary from space to space?

  • Is the amount of variation a hindrance to the perception of the artwork or does it add to the visitor's experience?

  • How do light levels on the horizontal plane that a visitor travels differ from those on the vertical plane of the artwork?

Visual comfort within a space

  • All three museums use natural light in the galleries. Sometimes, especially with side lighting using natural light, glare can be a problem. Does the viewer experience glare while in any of the spaces?

  • Does glare ever reduce a visitor's ability to engage the artwork?

Light for architectural space-making

  • Are there noticeable changes in light levels throughout the galleries?

  • Does light use in each space affect it positively or negatively?

Comments to author: vitalsigns@

All contents copyright (C) 1998. Vital Signs Project. All rights reserved.

Created: 04/23/96
Revised: 09/09/02