As part of my graduate program, I have to take a class on preventive conservation. This involves learning about the ways in which you can prevent damage from occurring, as opposed to acting once an object has been destroyed. This can involve everything from monitoring the environment (humidity, temperature, light, etc.) to properly housing objects, to training staff in proper handling procedures… You get the idea.
One of the assignments we had to do for this class was – and this is probably going to sound ridiculous – looking at an artwork that is light sensitive at varying light levels, from really well lit (200 lux) to the kind of lighting that is recommended for these objects (50 lux). Then we had to evaluate the aesthetic experience of looking at the objects under these lighting conditions.
I remember not taking the assignment very seriously until I actually did the experiment. Then, wow. It was a bit of an eye opener.
My experiment involved looking at the artwork (I chose a rather intricate Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print) at four different light levels (25, 50, 100, and 200 lux), first against a light gray background and then against a dark background. And it was really interesting to note what I saw, and didn’t see.
Turns out, you can’t really see details very well at the kinds of light levels that are recommended for light-sensitive objects. Or colors. And the light colored backgrounds most museums have just make colors less vivid. The print looked much better against a dark background, even at lower light levels.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed these things. Almost all of my classmates noted the same issues in their experiments.
Museums are supposed to be about aesthetic experience. As a fledgling conservator, this experiment gave me much to think about in terms of the guidelines we set, and their impact on the public we are supposed to serve. There are, of course, no simple answers, and as a conservator, my first instinct is to protect the object. But what do we sacrifice when we do so?