Limiting Light in Collections Storage Areas

Risk Management in Museums

Creative Ways to Limit Light Exposure

Limiting unnecessary light exposure is always a major concern as museums seek to balance collection preservation with access to collections. Even dim lighting affects delicate materials, so lighting should be a significant consideration of any institution’s risk management strategy for collections storage areas.

Here’s how to limit light exposure in museum collections areas.

1. Determine the acceptable light levels

It’s important to consider the makeup of various collections when deciding what to display. Some materials, like stone, metal, and glass, are relatively unaffected by light exposure, while others will degrade quickly if exposed to UV light.

LED lighting technology has advanced rapidly in recent years. The general consensus is that LED systems don’t emit UV rays and are therefore much safer to display collections. For instance, this client specified 2700K as the temperature for their illuminated museum cabinets.

This chart, developed by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, shows recommended light levels for various materials in storage and work areas.

museum cabinets flexible exhibit storage

Material Visible Light Level Ultraviolet Light
Fragile paper Silk Albumen & tinted photographs Sensitive pigments and dyes 5 footcandles 50 lux for three months or less < 75 u/lum**
Watercolors Paintings with organic pigments and dyes Textiles in poor condition or with organic dyes Colored Papers 5 footcandles 50 lux for six month or less < 75 u/lum
Paintings with mineral pigments Paper in good condition Pastels Textiles in good condition or with aniline dyes Dyed leather Photographs Pencil Drawings Tempera paintings 5-10 footcandles 50-100 lux for 12 months or less < 75 u/lum
Ivory and bone Wood Oil paintings Undyed leather Enamels 5-15 footcandles 50-150 lux for 24 months or less < 100 u/lum
Stone Metal Glass Ceramics Unlimited Unlimited

* Adapted from “Light Duration Guidelines for Exhibited Works of Art” Arthur M. Sacker Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution
** u/lum = microwatts per lumen
Data courtesy of Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA)

2. Block Windows

Most modern collections storage areas are windowless, but if your collections storage area is in an historic building, you’ll need to block window light with shades and heavy curtains, or you might be able to board them up entirely. Be sure to check with your facility’s building manager first to maintain compliance with egress codes.

risk management aisle light

3. Consider Automatic Aisle Lights

If you’re planning a collections area renovation and are considering compact storage (shelves that slide on rails), opt for automatic aisle lights. These LED lighting fixtures illuminate when an aisle in a compactor system is opened, and they turn off automatically when the aisle is closed.

See how the Arizona State Museum uses this solution.

Providing the Best Environment

Light damage is permanent, which means there’s no way to restore an object or specimen that’s been damaged by light exposure. Be sure to provide the best environment for materials entrusted to your care.

4. Consider Sliding Art Racks

Some museums are incorporating visible storage areas, which double as public viewing areas and storage. In this museum, sliding art racks offer visitors a glimpse into the collection while allowing museum staff to control which paintings are exposed to light. In addition to protecting the works from unnecessary light exposure, this solution also minimizes the risks inherent to handling and transport. That’s because the entire racks are moved instead of moving individual paintings (paintings are generally hung on the art racks and left in the same place).

See how the Daytona Museum of Arts and Sciences uses this solution

risk management in museums- sliding art rack

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5. Cover or Contain Particularly Sensitive Objects

If ambient light can’t be limited sufficiently, cover sensitive objects with a non-reactive material or place them in a museum cabinet to protect them. Remove them from their protective environment only when they are needed for research, conservation, or other specific uses.

6. Be Sure to Turn Off the Lights

It might sound obvious, but it’s important to post signs reminding staff and visiting researchers to turn off the lights when they leave collections storage areas. Invest in motion detectors to help prevent unnecessary light exposure.

Your Partner in Collections Care

Spacesaver is committed to helping museums and other institutions fulfill their responsibility to protect and preserve collections. For nearly 50 years we’ve offered innovative approaches to optimizing space and maintaining ideal preservation environments.

Our solutions have stood the test of time, and we’re committed to helping the museum community continue to learn and grow. Your nearby space planning consultants, backed up by our in-house engineering and manufacturing professionals, can partner with your team to help preserve the past and prepare for the future.