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Light for Culture: a discourse traversing the silent drama of lighting in museums

As part of the International Museum Expo in Delhi, the masterclass by vis a vis and ERCO informed the audience about the fundamentals of light and its role in cultural settings.

by Anushka SharmaPublished on : May 27, 2023

“I request you all to please take a pen and a piece of paper and draw light,” says Amit Gupta, Managing Director, vis a vis, as he addresses a crowd of curious gazes looking up at the stage perched amidst the unfolding International Museum Expo in India. With an ambient rustle of papers being drawn out of bags, the timer began to tick, and with it, the pens were uncapped and synchronically rushed to meet the blank sheet of paper. Following the 30 seconds of brainstorming and doodling, the formerly empty papers became canvases for diverse interpretations of light—from sunlight and rays to lamps and bulbs. This was an exercise architect Louis Kahn gave himself when he was 19. While most would gravitate towards drawing light as beams or lamps, Kahn splashed a blotch of black ink on a white sheet of paper, delineating darkness, and so creating light.

  • The masterclass was conducted by ERCO and vis a vis in collaboration  | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    The masterclass was conducted by ERCO and vis a vis in collaboration Image: Courtesy of STIR
  • The masterclass began with an interactive sketching exercise | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    The masterclass began with an interactive sketching exercise Image: Courtesy of STIR

From May 18 to May 20, 2023, New Delhi played host to the International Museum Expo, a commemoration of International Museum Day. The first-of-its-kind, the comprehensive three-day event aimed to broach holistic conversations and spotlight the diverse cultural heritage housed by various museums traversing the country. Not only did the three-day event enunciate the significance of these museums as cultural centres, but highlighted the role they play in cultural development. Ideas, insights and cross-cultural learning saturated the halls at Pragati Maidan through workshops, seminars, masterclasses, panel discussions and more—one such masterclass was Light for Culture.

  • Light for Culture booth at International Museum Expo 2023 | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    Light for Culture booth at International Museum Expo 2023 Image: Courtesy of STIR
  • Light for Culture booth showcased different milieus of lighting  | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    Light for Culture booth showcased different milieus of lighting Image: Courtesy of STIR

Helmed by long-time partners Germany-based lighting brand ERCO and integrated lighting solutions company vis a vis, the masterclass was conducted by Kishor Shetty, Country Manager, India, at ERCO,  Luis F. R. Barahona, ERCO’s Manager and Head of Lighting Design in Asia Pacific and the Middle East, and Amit Gupta. Together, the trio took the crowd on a three-tiered journey of illumination—beginning from the fundamental meaning of light, deciphering the language of light, and finally, shedding light on the niche of lighting for museums. “I think that part of the job that we have here is education. People know they want to tell a story in a museum, but sometimes they do not understand the complexities,” says Barahona. To this, Gupta adds, “We are far behind in terms of the importance we give to lighting as a tool to design an experience in museums in India, and we hope that an initiative like this makes people understand that in any museum of curatorial value lighting design experience is of prime importance.”

Lighting caters to a sense that renders an emotional layer on any human experience. It plays a critical role in how art engages the spectator in a dialogue. – Amit Gupta

Let there be light—and shadows

The first segment of the masterclass was conducted by Barahona and delved into the rudimentary concept of light—what light is in its essence. This introduction came about as a pleasant buffer for an audience that included people from diverse backgrounds and laid the necessary groundwork for the conversation to come. Barahona, an architect and lighting designer himself, patiently guided the listeners through the ABCs of the electromagnetic spectrum of light, where visible light occupies a small fraction (precisely wavelengths from 380 to 700 nanometers). This wave, otherwise imperceptible, can be observed in the presence of mediums such as smoke, sand or surfaces, which also disclose its directional qualities.

Luis F. R. Barahona, head of lighting design in Asia Pacific and the Middle East, ERCO  | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
Luis F. R. Barahona, Manager and Head of the Lighting Design, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, ERCO Image: Courtesy of STIR

Following a detailed lowdown on reflection and its relationship with different colours, the speaker moves on to address light’s perpetual comrade—a shadow. “You have to be aware that the moment we have light, we will have shadows; we should not be afraid of creating them,” he explains. “The moment we enter spaces with artificial lights, we have the opportunity to control the way the shadows form—they can either be sharp or we can create softness. As lighting designers, we have the possibility to influence the way people are going to see the space, and shadows are an important part,” added Barahona.

Light: The fourth dimension of architecture

With its definitions and fundamentals in place, the discourse moved to explore the language of light. We know what it is, but what does it say? The semantics of light are as versatile as the energy itself—shapeshifting to adapt to the spirit of the space rather than defining it. “As architects or as lighting designers you need to support and make sure that, even in the night, people outside can recognise the spirit of the building,” Barahona says. While architects work with three dimensions, light adds the fourth when it comes into play—making it indispensable for architects and designers to take into account. From providing visibility to ensuring human comfort by illuminating spaces in a way that facilitates associated activities, the impact of lighting is beyond just the physical.

Light can transform a space with colours or add drama through shadows | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
Light can transform a space with colours or add drama through shadows Image: Courtesy of STIR
We have to make sure that we provide lighting solutions that are beautiful, but at the same time, consume extremely low energy; as designers, we have this responsibility towards the environment. – Luis F. R. Barahona

Light must trace and accentuate the geometrical forms of buildings—emulating natural light in the absence of it. And just like that, building envelopes become playgrounds of exploration and experimentation—without manipulating their innate identity. “Specifically in museums, we need to understand the heritage of the objects and the story behind them before we develop an idea of how those will be exposed and exhibited. After that we can start looking for the lighting tools that will be needed to create those effects,” Barahona explains. As the carousel of images on the screen behind the speaker displayed luminescent structures—from monuments and hospitality buildings to museums and outdoor spaces—Barahona makes the audience understand how the core principles remain constant throughout.

  • The artworks can be revealed in different ways through different lighting | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    The artwork by Amrit Pal Singh was revealed in different ways through different lighting Image: Courtesy of STIR
  • A dark room in the booth with spotlights on the artworks | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    A dark room in the booth featured the collection of Toy Faces by Amrit Pal Singh in the spotlight Image: Courtesy of STIR

Qualitative lighting surpasses quantitative lighting, a principal Barahona aptly explained using architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s widely quoted adage ‘less is more’. “You don’t have to fill the space with light. You have to light the space intelligently, keeping in mind the perception of the human eye,” he says. With this, he went on to demonstrate the three qualitative lighting effects, each yielding a different milieu: ambient lighting, accent lighting and play for brilliance. As he progresses from one definition to the next, the stage morphed to exemplify his theory to the captivated spectators. With ambient lighting, the walls demarcating the stage lit up evenly employing vertical illumination or wall-washing; with accent lighting or focal glow, the artworks became the protagonists in the spotlight; and lastly, what was referred to as ‘play for brilliance,’ transformed the space by infusing it with the drama of colour.

Museum lighting: interpreting historical and cultural identities

“Am I audible? I won’t ask if I am visible,” with a tinge of humour, Shetty took over the stage for the final module of the masterclass: lighting for museums. By then, privy to the basics of lighting, the attendees were prepared to transition into the technicalities and specificities that entail. Museums and galleries are edifices of historical and cultural identity, spaces of choreographed expression, and places of function in tandem. Shetty dove into the complexities and considerations that accompany these structures—attending to them with feasible solutions. “One of the major challenges you face in a museum is that the exhibits are of multiple sizes and shapes. How do you take into account a lighting scheme that addresses this complexity?” the speaker points out. The chosen luminaire must be as diverse as the exhibits; not only in its sizes but also the beam possibilities it brings to the table—catering to a wider range of shapes, scales and frequencies of change in exhibits. Shetty’s commentary was buttressed by the diverse display of beams on the stage—a spirited dance of illumination.

Kishor Shetty, country manager for India, ERCO | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
Kishor Shetty, country manager for India, ERCO Image: Courtesy of STIR
Light as a medium is what creates the mood. Brightness is directly linked with happiness, while darkness is linked with feeling unsafe or sad. How you define the quantity of light in space will define the psychology, beyond what it does to the exhibit. – Kishor Shetty

“Not all lights are the same even though they might be good or great on paper. We always recommend having mock-ups on a white wall since white is not only a lighting-friendly colour, it is also a revealing colour—it reveals bad quality light,” Shetty explains. He delved further into the evaluation of good and bad lighting by enlisting six parameters of quality: effectiveness, no central hotspot, no scallops around the beam, no colour-over-angle, visual comfort and uniform wall-wash. “What you design and what the client pays for is not a mere tool, what matters is the light output on the surface. Hence, the comparisons and evaluations should not stop at the source,” he comments. With two different spotlights as visual aids, Shetty identified the inherent flaws—hotspots, the spills around it, the peripheral coloured tinge that might appear and its uniformity. He wittingly left it to the audience to conclude which one they would prefer, his words “sometimes, to appreciate the good, you need to place the bad next to it” hanging in the air as the viewers ponder. 

  • Lighting can also frame the artwork or make it appear to be backlit | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    While some artwork was framed by lighting, others appeared to be backlit Image: Courtesy of STIR
  • The spaces also features focal lighting on artworks | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
    Dali, Kusama and M.F. Husain Toy Face displayed in focal lighting Image: Courtesy of STIR

“If you want your artworks to be preserved forever, keep them in a dark room, but that is not the job of a museum,” says Shetty, steering the discourse towards conservation. LEDs, although carry no ultraviolet or infrared radiations, do not illuminate sans damage—the harm can only be minimised, not eliminated. From sensor technologies to mindful positioning of artworks, the speaker presented various ways in which one can curtail damage by controlling the two contributing factors—the amount of light and the duration of exposure.

Designing with light creates magical spaces and highlights landscapes; prioritising lighting tools is something that will reward you because you are creating spaces that people will enjoy. – Luis F. R. Barahona

A silent protagonist

“You want the light fixtures to be as silent as possible,” states Shetty. Yet, despite the preferred silence, lighting never falters to be the primary point of reference for everything it illuminates, and the determinant of the emotions that paint the viewer’s mind space. “Light in an exhibition space supports the story that the creators would like to tell—a story which is going to be shared with generations to come,” comments Barahona. “You can create hierarchies, and the fascinating thing is that you can guide people with light,” he adds.

Viewers got an opportunity to experience the impacts of lighting through the booth | Light for Culture | ERCO x vis a vis | STIRworld
Viewers got an opportunity to experience the impacts of lighting through the ERCO x vis a vis booth Image: Courtesy of STIR

Underpinning the enlightening talk, the abutting booth by ERCO and vis a vis brought the theories to life. As the visitors manoeuvred from one room to the next, they moved unassumingly on a spectrum of experiences and emotions—witnessing subtlety, precision, impact and drama, all in one brief walk through the settings. The International Museum Expo came about as an initiative of educating minds about the intrinsic role museums and cultural institutions play in articulating the contemporaneity of any country—testimonies of the rich layers of its past and its desired futures. And how could this stride towards revelation shy away from conversations around the very energy that reveals—about light, its culture and its potentiality in culture?  

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