Pros Embrace Design Challenges of Lighting an Ancient Building

Having lit a large stuffed elephant in Wisconsin, and a three-story high wooden one in New Jersey, CLI was then called upon to light a resident goat in a full-scale reproduction of an 1100 B.C. Iron Age house in Canaan. When this fascinating permanent exhibit opened two years ago in the famed University Museum in Philadelphia (the largest archeological museum in the country), the basic concept and displays of original pottery and other items were praised. However, the lighting, or lack of it, was universally panned. There were so many complaints from visitors that the guides themselves offered to pay for improved illumination. The design challenges were many. How do you recreate interior lighting that was done originally with such primitive fuel as dung? What does such a hearth fire look like? What color would the general light have been? How do you highlight the weaving loom, grinding grain, and the cache of large storage jars while retaining the feel of antiquity without looking like glitzy Las Vegas or glaring K-Mart? How can the descriptive panels be made easily legible, yet not detract from the display? How do you recreate bright desert sunlight streaming through planks in the rustic door? And most of all, what simple but effective design would be vandalproof, pleasing to the viewer, need only minimum maintenance, and be very affordable? With limited clearances, the requirements for unobtrusive lighting hardware, energy efficiency, and protection for fugitive organic materials vulnerable to the harmful infrared and ultraviolet rays of light, the obvious solution was glass fiber optics. The design process included determining correct length and size of light guides to achieve the desired historic light levels and colors. First came an onsite mock-up attended by all those involved in the project. Once the bill of material was determined, only two days were needed to prepare, install, and focus. In museums, for security and safety, outside workers cannot touch objects on display. Only curators, conservators, or authorized exhibit people can do that. At lunchtime, with the exhibit case open, the lighting designer had to stay behind to be on guard. However, because the house was only a reproduction, the electricians were allowed to drill the ceiling holes for the tails. The museum’s exhibit builder and his assistant were invaluable. Used to very limited budgets to exhibit priceless collections, they employed their common sense and expertise solving unexpected problems. During installation, all small objects were put aside and the remaining immovable displays were covered. Throughout, the exhibit assistant stood at the ready with a vacuum cleaner to take up the chips from drilling. The installation was tricky because after all, this was not an actual mud structure, just a lightweight reproduction. This made it impossible to climb on the roof to insert and focus the glass tails. Ingenious tools had to be employed, like attaching two available broom handles together with friction tape to prod the light guides into place. Adjustable flush fittings could easily be reaimed if any objects were replaced. One metal halide projector for 34 points of light was secured inside the entrance of the house. This was for ambient and directional light in the house and for the four descriptive panels on the exterior. Several color filters were tried before one was selected to replicate a Mediterranean ambiance. Because of the many school children attending, the stuffed goat was left outside the glass enclosure for them to see, but far enough away not to be touched by sticky little fingers. Now properly highlighted, he quickly proved to be the public’s most popular item in the exhibit. The beehive oven, sliced in half, was flush up against the display case window. Because only eight glass tails were needed for the dung fire, a small tungsten halogen light source was used. Not being able to learn what such a fire looked like, it was decided to simply recreate glowing embers. It was necessary to raise this heavy plaster cast to bring the tails fished through the floor up behind the artificial lumps of dung. Four 8-inch-high blocks from another museum exhibit were produced to do this. With the glass tails inserted, it was realized that when the oven was lowered, it would crush them. The exhibit builder proceeded to chop out the oven’s underside, creating a safe space for them. With the originally planned lighting completed, the exhibit designer decided to use the three spare tails that had been provided (always a good idea). Having just come from another project, the electricians happened to have some extra fittings for them leftover in the truck. They were not exactly the same size (all fittings are custom made), but could do the job to meet the approaching opening deadline. Focusing is one of the crucial steps. That drew an audience on the second day, when the two life-size figures were being done. A couch from the lobby was produced for “sidewalk superintendents” of museum staff and visitors to sit comfortably in front of the house and express their views. They did everything but hold up numerals, like at the Olympics. Lighting the Iron Age House itself was not the only problem. On three sides of this exhibit were glass display cases, lit with very bright halogen lamps. Reflections coming from the outside made it almost impossible to see through the glass enclosing the Canaan house. Once there was interior illumination, the balls of light decreased and the hot, ineffective exterior overhead track lights could be turned off. When the work was done, the same expression always heard about glass fiber optics lighting from electricians nationwide, was, “It was fun facing the challenges.” Compared to the boring installation of rows of fluorescent troffers, the mechanics said this job provided such interest, they looked forward to coming to work every day. The design process and the innovative methods to implement it for this 3,000-year-old building can be equally applied to new or existing projects in the 21st century. Easily understandable, practical information on the “care and feeding” of glass fiber optics functional architectural lighting for all types of applications can be found in the first comprehensive book on the subject, Fiber Optics in Architectural Lighting (McGraw-Hill, 1999). KAY is president of Conservation Lighting International, Philadelphia. She can be reached at (215) 568-0923.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.