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Lighting in museums has long been a contentious subject among museum conservators. A gallery with too much light often causes long-term damage to artwork on display, while a gallery with too little light creates a poor experience for visitors. The balance is fine and often subjective. In this episode, David Saunders, an expert in the area of conservation science, discusses the history of and advances in museum conservation and lighting. Currently a Getty Rothschild Fellow, Saunders is former principal specialist at the National Gallery and keeper of conservation, documentation, and research at the British Museum.

Portrait of David Saunders

David Saunders. Photo by Rachel Zamora

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Museum lighting research at the Getty Conservation Institute

Transcript

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

DAVID SAUNDERS:  You could say that my interest in museum lighting is sort of a long obsession. It’s something I’ve been interested in since I first started my career at the National Gallery more years ago than I care to remember.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with conservation science expert David Saunders.

In July 2016 the Getty and the Rothschild Foundation announced the creation of the Getty Rothschild Fellowship, a program that will support innovative scholarship in the history of art, collecting, and conservation using the collections and resources of both institutions. The fellowship offers art historians, museum professionals, and conservators the opportunity to research and study at the Getty in Los Angeles and at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England.

David Saunders, the inaugural Getty Rothschild Fellow, is currently at work on a groundbreaking publication about museum and gallery lighting. He is a former principal specialist at the National Gallery in London and keeper of conservation, documentation, and research at the British Museum.

Lighting in museum galleries is a topic of great importance, as it affects both the visitor experience and the long-term condition and safety of the objects on display. Improper light levels can produce radiant heat that over a period of time can cause the surface of an artwork to crack, change color, or otherwise degrade. These concerns must be balanced with creating a comfortable environment for the visitor and displaying objects to their best advantage. While there is subjectivity involved in these complex decisions, David’s publication aims to provide a scientific basis to guide these judgments.

David is currently finishing his fellowship at Waddesdon Manor but while he was working on his research here at the Getty, I met with him to talk about the history and future of museum conservation and lighting.

CUNO:  So David before we get into the subject of your book and your research here at the Getty, tell us about the history of conservation in museums. I think that probably people take it for granted that there’s always been some level of professional conservation in museums. But what is the history of it?

SAUNDERS:  Well there probably have been people working on the care of objects in museums for centuries. Since museums were first founded and private individuals having collections would have people working on their material. But as an organized profession, it’s really much more recent—around the late 19th century early 20th century, you start to get many more reports of museums having conservators, and professional training for conservators really doesn’t get underway until, you know, sort of the second quarter of the 20th century. And then even at that time it’s generally the case that conservators work with the curatorial departments within a museum.

CUNO:  You mean side by side? A conservator and a curator side by side?

SAUNDERS:  Well, with conservators working in these departments, it was generally the case that the curators were in charge and the conservators reported to the curators. And so you had a specialist perhaps in paintings in the curatorial department and you had specialized paintings conservators working with those with those curators. And really only in the kind of the latter half of the 20th century does one see conservation departments being formed in many of the museums. Now, some museums were really at the vanguard of this in the states. The Fogg in Harvard was really at the forefront of this. But for example the British Museum, where I worked for many years, it was only really in the 1970s that all the conservators in the different departments of the museum came together to form a single department. And in many museums the conservators still work within the curatorial department. [At] the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you find that the curators with specialisms in the decorative arts for example will have conservators working with them who are specialized in decorative arts.

CUNO:  I suppose in the earliest days of conservation—we call it conservation before it became a kind of professionalized practice—there were artists who fixed up paintings, who dealt with the problems that paintings had to offer, or sculptors who had worry about problems sculptures had. Is that the case?

SAUNDERS:  It is, and particularly in the sort of 18th and 19th century, we see these artist-sculptors who specialized in restoring material for private collectors and for museums and for auction houses, and there’s often a fine line there between restoring those objects and improving them for the market. And, you know, we see in museums now collections of sculptures for example that were very much improved after excavation—they’d lost fairly substantial parts during burial, they were restored in the 18th century, say. And then there’s this tradition in the 20th century of de-restoring them and then towards the end of the 20th century re-restoring these objects.

CUNO:  Was that a word that was used?

SAUNDERS:  Well I don’t know whether it was used then because of course at that stage it was just the restoration of them because there was this very purist attitude that we must remove from objects all the accretions that had been imagined in the in the 18th century. And so, fortunately in many cases, although these parts were removed, they were retained. So they weren’t thrown away. So when the fashion changed in the late 20th century these parts could be reattached. And I think the Getty Villa does this very well—showing effectively three-dimensional maps on the labels of the parts that are original, the parts that were added in the maybe 18th, 19 th century, and then modern restoration that perhaps aimed at reintegrating these things. So one has a clear idea of what is the work of the conservator restore in this.

CUNO:  I know that when some object has been restored multiple times, it’s hard to decide to what to reduce the restoration to, in other words to its original state. Let’s say it was made in 16th century but it was restored in the 17th, the 18th, in the 19th century, or to keep all those attached in some way identified as attachments because they have historical value in and of themselves. So it must be hard to come to some agreement between conservators and curators about what state to leave the object in.

SAUNDERS:  Yeah. It’s always a discussion about to what extent you return to an original artist’s intent, [that’s] sometimes the phrase used, and to what extent you keep the history of an object as part of the object. So the restoration’s become part of the history of an object, and in many cases the artists and restorers working on the sculptures or paintings were great artists in their own right. And therefore we would value those additions that they have made. And I think in modern conservation terms we are perhaps not so rigid as we might have been in the past, but we’re very keen that everything should be thoroughly documented so that our choices are clear and that we leave the maximum possibility for our successors to reinterpret what we have done as fashions change, as technologies allow reinterpretation.

CUNO:  Yeah. Before we get farther along into your actual research project, I do want to go back for a least a brief moment to the history of conservation. I recall a story about the National Gallery in London, where you worked, in the middle of the 19th century, where the air was quite polluted and of course, being in the center of London, there was a big debate about moving the gallery collections out of the center of London to the west where the air was fresh. And it was even justified, because most of the working class has lived in the east of London, in terms that they would benefit by walking farther to go see the collections because they would have exercise in the process of it. And ultimately parliament came to a decision that, no, it had to stay in the center of London because of course these works of art, these pictures, these paintings were the property of as it were the nation, therefore they should be equally accessible to all, more or less. The museum had to figure out how to prevent that foul air from outside coming into and damaging the pictures. Is that a true story or is it a good story?

SAUNDERS:  I recognize most of that story. I hadn’t heard about the factor of getting the working classes from the east of London to walk further in order to see the paintings and that that would be good exercise for them. But yes there was a select committee report in the 1850s which looked at re-siting the National Gallery and to the west of London to a site which now isn’t far from where the Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum were built later in the 19th century but which was considerably cleaner. I mean we now think of that area of Kensington as being part of the metropolis. But then it was to the west. The prevailing winds blew from the west so the foul air that was created in the area around the Thames near the gallery blew east, so there was no question of moving it east.

And indeed they decided for the very reasons you said that it was best to have the collection where it was most accessible in the very center of London and they didn’t move it. And in order to try and ameliorate the problems of the foul atmosphere they looked at potentially having better doors and windows, but also protecting the paintings at the level of the paintings and they had two strategies for this. The first was to glaze paintings and we know that by about the 1880s—

CUNO:  Which means to put a sheet of glass—

SAUNDERS:  Yes it would have been in those days glass. We didn’t have any of these fancy plastics that you sometimes now see in front of paintings. And we don’t have the glass that’s used in front of modern paintings, which has a special coating so it doesn’t reflect the light. In those days, you would have got big reflections in the paintings. And actually this is one of the clues we have in old photographs that the paintings have been glazed. There are some photographs of an installation in the 1880s where you can clearly see the reflections in the paintings and we know therefore that they were glazed, and there are records in the National Gallery indicating that by the 1880s is pretty much everything was glazed. And it’s only a 20th century preoccupation to remove the glass so you can see the painting better.

And the second strategy was that they would put canvases on the back of the paintings, so another subsidiary canvas on the back. And this canvas was primed with the white pigment called lead white. And the reason for this is that lead white will react with some of the pollutant gases that were found in the atmosphere in London at the time preferentially. In other words it will act like a sponge taking these polluting gases out of the atmosphere before they reach the back of the painting. So it was quite a clever strategy, and this was partly the recommendation of Michael Faraday, of course the famous scientist of the mid-19th century who was part of the group that advised the gallery on its scientific policy.

CUNO:  And that was the practice for decades?

SAUNDERS:  It was the practice certainly in the latter half of the 19th century and it’s not entirely clear at what stage that started to fall out of fashion.

CUNO:  Did it become the kind of model practice that was exported to the continent of Europe or to North America?

SAUNDERS:  It was certainly used in many other cities particularly those that had bad pollution. And I think in North America, a lot of the museums were built with rather better filtration because they were built later. It was in the age where mechanical filtration, if not air conditioning, were part of the makeup of the building. And so we see as we move into the 20th century that these problems are dealt with at the front door rather than within the building.

CUNO:  Now those are a set of problems that pertain to paintings because of course the National Gallery is a picture gallery [SAUNDERS:  Yup.] a gallery collection of paintings. The British Museum is a very different kind of museum with different kinds of materials. And that’s a problem that you’ve got different kinds of materials responded differently to the same environment. How early did one have to recognize that problem?

SAUNDERS:  Well we know that the soiling of materials in the British Museum was a very early concern—

CUNO:  Getting dirt in—

SAUNDERS:  So this is just the dirt coming in, because as well as the pollutant gases, there’s just dust which gets everywhere, and dust from burning is sometimes very sticky because it doesn’t burn completely.

CUNO:  Because it was in chimneys and the air is filled with this pollutant in the air from the chimneys?

SAUNDERS:  It’s largely from coal of course in the 19th century. There’s very little kind of oil and petrol of course until we get into the 20th century. The coal can be quite poor quality. Poor quality coal has a lot of sulfur in it. When this burns it produces a gas called sulfur dioxide and this is a gas that can react with a lot of different materials. So Faraday, who did a lot of work on this for the National Gallery also looked at the way that the sulfur dioxide form from burning sulfur containing coal affected metal objects and also the leather chairs in the Athenaeum Club, which is his London club. And again, during the middle of the 19th century. But returning to the British Museum, the soiling of sculpture was a great concern—the fact that black material accreted to this and also the gas component was a great worry because it would attack leather, it would attack, they thought paper, other organic materials that are susceptible to chemical change. And it led to big debates particularly in London about whether or not one should introduce gas lighting—

CUNO:  —in the building—

SAUNDERS:  —to museums. And there was of course a worry about fire. But there were those who believed that the materials produced by the combustion of gas in the lights would be damaging to objects and actually they weren’t wrong because some of these products can attack museum objects and they can create also some moisture. So you can get pockets of moisture in the museum which again can cause changes that you wouldn’t want to happen to the collection.

CUNO:  So the collections are made of different materials. You’ve got paper collections, you’ve got sculpture collections that are made of stone, some made of wood, some made of metal, for example. They’re segregated also historically and culturally between, let’s say, Asian and North American and African and whatever. Sometimes that might put one set of solutions in conflict with another set of solutions because you’re not segregating by materials, which might be the easiest most efficient way to care for them differently, but you’re mixing them all up and segregating them by cultures. When was that recognized to be a problem?

SAUNDERS:  Well it was recognized as a problem very early that one might, you know, store materials that had very different needs in terms of their environment together. The question when it was solved is quite another. And in fact in many cases it really hasn’t been solved. Many museums throughout the world, the British Museum included, still store all their objects according to their curatorial origins rather than their material properties. Now this is being recognized increasingly by museums and for particularly sensitive collections. There are often moves to bring those together. So for example in ivory collections, ivories can be affected by changes in the moisture content in the atmosphere around them causing them to crack and to distort. And so often a museum will create a store for its ivory or if it has a group of particularly susceptible materials, say made of leather, it will perhaps bring those together. But it tends often to be an exception rather than a rule in large museums that have a long history and mix collections, and where that long history is a history of cultural differences in the type of object rather than material differences.

CUNO:  So we learned a lot in just this brief conversation about the complexity of dealing with the material needs of different kinds of works of art by people called conservators. What is the history of the education of conservators? How did one become a conservator and how does that change over the course of time?

SAUNDERS:  Well, originally, you became a conservator probably by practicing the craft or tradition of the making of whatever it was you conserved or restored and you would work within a studio context. And often the making of something and the restoration of it was very similar. There was a very fine divide between the making of new and the restoration of old. And then within museums, there tended to be apprenticeships and a master—and they seemed to be mostly men, there are a few exceptions—would pass on this this tradition, this craft, to pupils who would then in due course take on that work. And it was often the case that they weren’t employed by the museum but they had a close association with it. So there would be a particular family that provided several generations of conservator to a an institution. And it’s only really in the 20th century that we start to see the emergence of a profession. There’s quite a lot of talk about this in the 1920s in particular, and a conference held in Rome in 1930 under the auspices of what I guess would then have been the League of Nations, the predecessor to kind of the U.N. and UNESCO, brought together a big international group to discuss the conservation of objects. And as a result of their discussions in 1930, they produced a book on the conservation of, in this case paintings, which was published in 1939 in French and then in 1940 in English.

It’s quite well known among certain groups but the fact that it came out at this time when, you know, the whole of Europe was in turmoil means that it perhaps got a little lost. A big milestone for the profession is 1950 when the International Institute for Conservation is formed. And this is a group that had been in gestation during the 1930s. It had sort of been on ice during the Second World War and then gradually as travel between Europe and America became easier again after the Second World War, they began to meet and to formulate the tenets of a conservation profession in 1950.

CUNO:  So at that time it became an academic course of study that one undertook. What was that course of study? What did it comprise?

SAUNDERS:  Well people came into the profession usually from some other course of study, so perhaps from being an artist and then working and learning to become a conservator, or perhaps from a scientific background—scientists becoming interested in using their scientific knowledge to help in the conservation of objects. And in some ways this is still the case with conservators today, that the fine arts, art history, archaeology, and the sciences are the root for most people into conservation. In many countries there are no bachelors programs in conservation. You come into it from another discipline but particularly the case in the English-speaking world. In other countries you can go and take this as a first degree but you tend only to become qualified after you’ve been studying for a rather longer period.

CUNO:  And so by that point then it introduces the question of the conservation scientist because that’s a separate profession from the conservator, and you’re a conservation scientist.

SAUNDERS:  Yes.

CUNO:  So how does one become a conservation scientist, and how exactly does it distinguish itself from being conservator?

SAUNDERS:  Well there is a boundary, I suppose, between conservation and conservation science but it’s increasingly I think a rather porous boundary, and many of the conservation scientists today have trained both in science and in conservation. So probably at some stage in their career, they had to make the decision whether they wanted to be a practicing conservator if you like giving rather more bias to the more artistic elements, the more kind of creative elements of conservation, or whether they wanted to go down the route of applying their scientific knowledge to kind of broader questions of how materials behave and how that impacts on the conservation of collections.

Once you’re in an institution and working as one or another, I suppose the thing that tends to distinguish the conservator and the conservation scientist is it is the conservator who has the hands-on contact with the object. The conservation scientist is perhaps acting more in the role of kind of an adviser and an ally in that process helping to inform the decisions that are made. But increasingly the conservation scientists are also answering questions that are posed not by the conservator but by the curator, because the material aspects of an object are not just of interest of course to the conservator, but they can help to inform the art historian, the archaeologist, the ethnographic historian, about the materials—where they might come from, how they might have arrived in that object, and how they may have changed the history of the object.

CUNO:  Right, they help an art historian understand how something looks—why it looks the way it does look now and whether the way it appears now is the result of some change over the course of time. But I think your point, which is always so interesting to an art historian like myself, is that when you break down the object into its components—scientific parts, material parts—to try to understand where in the world they might have come from, what kind of questions of trade and influence can be can be asked of the objects, and what kind of evidence can be can be produced to help one understand the development of works of art.

So we have conservators, we’ve got conservation scientists, and we have conservation departments. When do departments of conservation scientists come into play?

SAUNDERS:  Well science departments arrive in museums before conservation science departments. They are probably conservation science departments but they tend to be called laboratories. And the first to survive for any length of time is the Rathgen lab in the Berlin museums, which was founded at the very end of the 19th century and has a very long history. It’s a laboratory that still exists today, over 120 years after its foundation. And then this is followed by the establishment of laboratories in the early 20th century, so the British Museum laboratory for example was founded in 1919 immediately after the first world war, and as a result of the deterioration of the collections in storage during that period, a laboratory was set up to look at the reasons behind that. And then we see a succession of laboratories being found. The Fogg laboratory in Harvard is founded in the 1920s, and then in the 1930s huge numbers of laboratories start to be founded in museums around the world. And in many cases the science laboratories pre-date the conservation departments because conservation was still carried out by private individuals sort of affiliated with the institution rather than the in-house department.

CUNO:  So a hundred years on, are we confident that all the significant collections, significant museums have in them a sufficient number of conservators and conservation scientists or is it a problem?

SAUNDERS:  I say that in many cases we don’t have enough conservation scientists. Now I’m not saying that just because I want to increase the role of conservation science or I want to create jobs for conservation scientists, but there are significant collections that don’t have a scientist and they rely often on collaboration with universities or collaboration with institutions that have scientists. And of course this is great because, you know, international collaboration in this field is very widespread. It’s a very tight knit community and a community in which it’s possible to know many of the key colleagues across the world. Now that could point to it being very collaborative. It could also point to the fact that it’s still really quite small that we can know each other. I think in a way that for example arts historians simply could not because there are so many more of them working in museums across the world. But this collaboration means that, you know, if there are significant issues in the collection then the conservator or the curator can turn to a wider community for answers. But it’s great that in the last few years partly through the invention of organizations like the Getty, the Mellon Foundation, larger numbers of conservation scientists have been trained and have been placed in museums across the world. And so it is a growing profession, it could do with growing a little quicker.

CUNO:  Well conservation is a central part of what the Getty does, as you know, not only conservation laboratories where we have collections but conservation science in the laboratories at the conservation institute. And then also the funding of training conservators around by the foundation and the practice of that training by the conservation institute and so forth. So it’s a big part of what we do, a defining aspect of our mission in fact. Is your work as you’re undertaking it now at the Getty in your research project, is it bringing you into contact with a range of different kinds of colleagues in the different parts of the Getty and has it been helpful for you to be here?

SAUNDERS:  Well as you know, I’m here to write something about museum lighting so it’s of interest to colleagues in the museum, both on the curatorial side and also in the conservation studios in the museum, because I’m not restricting myself to any one type of object in thinking about lighting. So I’ve had great contacts with people in objects conservation, paintings conservation, paper conservation, and colleagues down at the Villa. And within that kind of collaborative atmosphere I see colleagues who have particular interests and particular specialisms in terms of materials. And sometimes those materials are not necessarily represented in the Getty collections but I’m able to talk to colleagues about, you know, the cutting edge research they’re doing with colleagues around the world on those types of issues.

CUNO:  Now, you mentioned that your project is dealing with museum or gallery lighting. What prompted that as a subject of your research and what are the problems associated with it?

SAUNDERS:  Well, you could say that my interest in museum lighting is sort of a long obsession. It’s something I’ve been interested in since I first started my career at the National Gallery more years ago than I care to remember. My first boss at the National Gallery was a man called Gary Thompson and Gary Thompson wrote a book called The Museum Environment in 1978 which remains for many conservators and curators the sort of the guiding light—

CUNO:  No pun intended.

SAUNDERS:  No pun intended—but for the museum environment in general, not just light but pollution, humidity, temperature, all those things that we think about when we’re hoping to control the environment around the collection in order to give it the longest life possible whilst still being able to enjoy it. And so I came into lighting partly through my training with Gary Thompson at the National Gallery and partly because I became very interested in the way in which paintings react to light and the individual pigments and dyes within paintings react to light. At the British Museum I became interested in how a much wider variety of objects were affected by light. And I realized that although there are incredibly good resources out there in different areas, since Gary’s book, there’s nothing really that’s brought it together as a single volume which you could pick up and know about all aspects. So from the science of light, the science of damage by light, through to how the visual system works, so how we see objects, what are the things that affect us as we’re moving through a museum or gallery, to putting this into practice. What are the kind of the day-to-day tips for making sure that we make good use of the light while minimizing damage.

CUNO:  It’s so interesting because you’re quite right you can’t separate out light from the other aspects of the environment because there are consequences to the amount of light, the length of time that lights are turned on and so forth, the kind of technology one uses to produce the light and all of that. But it’s important to isolate that at least for the sake of better understanding that aspect of the environment, there was a long time when people thought that natural light was better than artificial light. Early pictures were made under natural light conditions, they should be seen under natural light conditions and so forth. And the National Gallery in the Sainsbury Wing went to great lengths to exclude artificial lighting. There was a time at least as I recall when you walked into the galleries at the National Gallery and it seemed as if it was the lights had failed because you were only looking at pictures under natural light conditions. That I think has been modified and changed to some controversy when it when it was changed. What is what is the prevailing sense about what is the balance between natural light and artificial light?

SAUNDERS:  There’s always been this conflict. I don’t know it’s perhaps too strong a word for it but this difference of opinion about whether one should adopt natural light or artificial light. If you’re trying to control the light levels from a conservation point of view, you’d really be best to start with a black box and light it yourself because then you can control everything. But it has a very particular feel to it. It’s a feel that some people like and designers often like to work with a black box when they’re creating an exhibition because it means they can make their stamp on it. But natural light has that quality of changeability; it changes both in its intensity and its color as the day progresses. And it also has variable direction. So if we think about, you know, strong sunlight coming from one direction as opposed to a very blue sky creating an overall diffuse light, that can be very different. And I think we probably have some reaction to that deep within us. I’m not a philosopher but it’s noticeable that people react well to daylight and they react well to those properties of changeability. And I think the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery was an attempt to use daylight in a way that helped people to connect with its changeability by having a lot of daylight high up in the room but actually not allowing an enormous amount of that daylight to come lower down into the room. So that meant that you could then use artificial light to, if you like, “top up” the level of daylight in a way that ironed out some of the changes on the paintings but allowed people to feel that connection with the changing daylight. And the way that was done in the Sainsbury Wing was that we used a set of lights that had blue filters in front of them to make those artificial lights blend rather better with daylight. And then as the daylight failed, we had a second set of lights that came on that were a bit warmer and created that sort of afterhours effect that you like when it’s dark outside.

And I think that was a very particular moment because that was in the late eighties and early nineties and Sainsbury opened in 1991. And it was really before we started to worry so much about the amount of energy we were using as museums. Now, I’m not saying no one thought about this but some time since then it’s become much more of an important fact. So I think now the moves to daylight are partly driven not just because of its kind of emotional and viewing qualities but because it’s free energy, or at least appears to be. But of course you then need some kind of system to modulate it and to limit it. But nevertheless that’s probably lower energy than putting artificial lights or electric lights in an institution.

CUNO:  Is one of the aspects of your study in the research going to be that you’re going to provide science to underline the decisions one has to make with regard to gallery lighting or gallery environments and others that right now, the difference of opinions seem to be just that—a  difference of opinion about things: what one likes, doesn’t like or what one prefers or doesn’t prefer. Are you hoping that the, you know, at the very least, to put a kind of bedrock of science beneath all of that?

SAUNDERS:  I’m hoping that there will be some scientific basis for what I say and it won’t remove the need for in the end, I think, a subjective decision. But it will I think allow you to understand the basis on which we’re making those decisions. So if I can sort of divide up the evidence that we have, we have certain evidence which we can put numbers to. We can look at just how much light you need to do a particular task so we can say if the light level is one foot candle, you can see this. If you take it down to 0.1, a tenth of a foot candle, you can’t see that any longer. So by taking many people and looking at what they can see under different light there was, we can come to some conclusion about just what the minimum light is for certain tasks. We can then say does that improve if we use a different kind of light. And again we can make some quantitative judgments about that. But then when we say do you like this, we’ve moved out of the realm of science. We can ask a thousand people if they like it. And if 999 of them say yes, we can be confident, but we have asked them if you like an emotional question about this, we’ve asked them about like, we’ve not asked them about the task. You know the task is can you see this, yes or no. Do you like this. Well a bit. Quite a lot. I like that one more than that one. Comparative judgments are often quite good in this sense because you can say well I don’t like that painting under that light but I rather like it under that light. The problem there is the next person you ask will potentially see it the other way around.

CUNO:  Yeah. How has the technology of lighting changed and how is that affected the work that you’re doing?

SAUNDERS:  There have been some big changes in the last twenty, thirty years in terms of lighting. At the beginning of the 20th century we had two choices, we either had natural light or we had something that you heated up. So the old fashioned incandescent lamp or its predecessors, and then fluorescent lamps came in in the middle of the 20th century so that gave us an option. And then the development of the tanks and halogen lamps, in the third quarter of the 20th century gave another kind of color in the palette of lighting. And but the big change of course that everyone’s aware of in their life outside the museum as well as within the museum is that we now have LEDs cropping up everywhere from car headlamps to lighting in our homes. And of course the great advantage of these in a very energy conscious age is that they’re spectacularly energy efficient. When they first came in, it was the usual dilemma with a new light source. Well they’re great from the point of view of energy consumption, but they made everything look terrible.

CUNO:  Because the color wasn’t right?

SAUNDERS:  Because the color, well the color just wasn’t—it wasn’t very pleasing. It was very inhomogeneous. It often had a kind of a blue halo around the yellow spot or vice versa because of the technology of making the lamp. But the driving force to introduce good LEDs because of their economic benefits was so great that research just focused on making better LEDs to the extent that now, you know, many of the questions that we asked of LEDs when they were first introduced are nonissues. I don’t think there’s any particular reason now why we shouldn’t use LEDs.

The main barrier I think still to using LEDs is that museums have to encounter a barrier of cost of reinstallation. So to take all the existing lamps out from museums and replace them with LEDs is a very high capital cost. In the long term, those capital costs are paid off because the running costs are much lower. And most importantly, I think, the lamp life is very long so you don’t have to replace the lamp so often. That saves in lamp costs but crucially it means that you don’t have to send a technician up on a cherry picker or up a set of steps so frequently to change the lamps so you make much better use of your manpower.

CUNO:  Is LED lighting changing rapidly, is it complicating your study because by the time you finish the technology will have improved or at least changed over the course of the time you’re writing your study?

SAUNDERS:  Yes. LED technology is still moving incredibly rapidly. I think it’s reached a level of maturity that one can write confidently about it knowing it or its successors will be there. I think if one were writing ten years ago one might have looked to LEDs and said, “Are they actually going to catch on? Will we overcome the problems?” I think there’s no question of that now, but as you’ve said, we need to look at what’s next. The next technology on the horizon are so-called OLEDs, which are organic LEDs and you may come across these already in large screen TVs. A lot of large screen TVs already use these OLEDs. They’re not yet suitable for lighting in museums and galleries, but perhaps by the time this podcast goes out they will be. It’s a technology that is changing incredibly quickly.

CUNO:  Just one last question on this. You’re talking about advanced technology, and that has some expenses attached to it and access to such technology has to be taken into account. Are you also thinking of gallery solutions for parts of the world that don’t have access to the same technologies?

SAUNDERS:  Well LEDs seem to have caught on worldwide because they require less power to run them. They’re quite useful in situations where in previous generations of lighting you couldn’t install a new lighting system because you just didn’t have the generator capacity within an organization. I mean I worked some years ago at a museum in India where you had to effectively turn the computers off if you wanted to turn on the air conditioning unit in the conservation studio. Now the air conditioning unit in the conservation studio was probably not necessary because as things came out of the studio they went back into a climate that was very changeable. But I think, you know, in organizations which are trying to keep up with what happens in more advanced institutions, LEDs are an advantage because they require less power. Of course there is still that initial cost which might make it a barrier. But the cost of LEDs is coming down all the time as they become kind of the dominant technology.

CUNO:  And dare I ask is your book almost finished?

SAUNDERS:  Parts of the book are in a very advanced stage and parts of it I’ve deliberately waited until I came here to work on because of the access to the libraries and the facilities here, because it’s, you know, it’s one of the few places where you can call up a book on vision science one day and a book on the deterioration of plastics the next day. So I’ve particularly chosen to focus on things here. I suppose I’m about two-thirds finished and my aim is to complete the book or at least the majority of the book during my fellowship here and with the Rothschild Foundation.

CUNO:  Well if I can only encourage you to work quickly because we need the results of your work published, and we’re thankful that you’re here and thankful that you’ve given time for this podcast.

SAUNDERS:  Okay, very nice to talk to you.

CUNO:  Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

DAVID SAUNDERS:  You could say that my interest in museum lighting is sort of a long obsession. I...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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