Museums are Using LED Technology to Preserve Paintings

Museums are Using LED Technology to Preserve Paintings

In 2015, Germany’s Aachen Cathedral, joined the growing list of art museums and other historical heritage sites to transition to LED museum lighting. The Cathedral, which is the burial place of Prince Charlemagne, maintains a collection of art and artifacts that date back to Europe’s pre-Renaissance era. Like other museums that have also adopted LED Technology to Preserve Paintings, the Aachen Cathedral switched to LED’s to reduce color fading in artwork from exposure to ultraviolet light, to give patrons a better museum experience, and to save utility and lighting maintenance costs.

Curators of fine art have long recognized that with extended exposure to harsh lighting and other adverse environmental conditions, artwork loses its color and vibrancy. A curator is often faced with the dilemma of displaying his or her institution’s collection for public appreciation while preserving the integrity and quality of that collection. Traditional halogen museum lighting that includes light wavelengths with a broad ultraviolet (UV) component will darken or degrade certain pigments that artists used to create classic masterpieces. The yellow pigments in Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, for example, have darkened noticeably over the 100-plus years since he created them.

In place of damaging UV-rich lighting, museums have turned to LED museum lighting that has been engineered with a minimal UV-spectrum and with other lighting components that eliminate the harsh illumination effects that were common in early-generation LED’s. LED museum lighting can also be fine-tuned for specific applications to bring out the richness of particular colors without contributing to the degradation of those colors.

This not only helps to preserve a museum’s collection, but it also enhances the museum patron’s involvement with the collection. Next-generation LED lighting systems allow engineers to tune LED museum lighting to have a high color rendering index (CRI) that comes closest to natural lighting but without the damaging UV component. High CRI lighting brings out the most subtle color distinctions in paintings and other artwork and allows museum patrons to see the finest levels of contrast and detail in every piece.

LED museum lighting specialists are also learning how to minimize the LED glare that accompanied some early-generation LED systems. Smaller light source, like LED’s, can create a glare problem, but that problem is managed with better lighting placement and angling of light sources, with special “cutoffs” that shield the light source from a viewer.

LED museum lighting also helps art institutions in their sustainability efforts. LED lighting systems generate the same or better illumination than halogen and other light sources at a fraction of the energy input. This reduces a museum’s draw on an electrical grid and its utility costs. Moreover, LED components include no mercury or other environmental contaminants that might require special handling at the end of their useful lives. LED fixtures also last much longer than traditional lighting systems, which further reduces a museum’s maintenance and replacement costs.  

LED light fixtures themselves do not generate excessive amounts of heat, but LED control components and circuitry do get noticeably hotter than traditional lighting components. Engineers have addressed this problem with special heat sink technology that dissipates excess heat without affecting the performance of the lighting fixture itself. Control circuitry is also remote from any artwork that is illuminated by the LED fixtures, and any heat from that circuitry will not harm the artwork.