The art and science of lighting

By Nick Cramp

29 March 2016

Lighting, both natural and artificial, is a crucial part of any art gallery design.

Although completion at Musee d'art a Nantes in France is still some way off, the testing and fine tuning of the lighting installations has already begun. The science of lighting is very advanced, and the Lighting team at Max Fordham take a leading role in analysing light sources so we can see how they perform. But that doesn't by any means give us the whole story. 


 Measuring light levels in the roof void above the galleries Comparing different spotlights in the galleries Recording lux levels, colour temperature and spectral distributions of gallery light sources


The way the eye reads visual data and in particular how that data is interpreted in the different areas of our brain dealing with recognition, orientation, emotion and memory is much less well known. So in order to get the best outcome for Nantes we needed to bring some genuine works of art onto the building site and look at the different options available to us.


 Testing the proposals for lighting with Herbst II by Per Kirkeby  and with  The Potato Pickers by Gustave Brion Curators, conservators, architects, builders and engineers all had the chance to rate the options


This was a chance to use the left side of our brains as well as the right (so to speak - in fact the long held theory of us having an analytical right side and an emotional left side of the brain has now been thoroughly discredited). We made choices based as much on what we feel works best, as well as what the numbers indicate.


Holding up a painting for the whole team to evaluate the lighting   The gallery lit by north light in the early morning and by sun through the blinds in the afternoon


We were fortunate that when performing daylight tests and blind commissioning, we had some unseasonal sun in otherwise rainy Nantes. It is interesting to see just how much the outside conditions change how the galleries feel. If you would like to learn more about our lighting service, do contact me at


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