Light in the Museum of Art

Behar David

(together with Levin Michael)


Of all the materials and components involved in designing museums of art, the most essential is light. Art museums, besides being culturally important, hold a place of honor in the professional architectural arena due to the immense design challenge generated by this building type namely the way the exhibition spaces are lighted. This research explores the factors that affect the appearance of the art exhibition space and that shape our perceptions of it. The research addresses the different qualities of natural and artificial light in relation to their influence on the exhibition space and on the viewer’s experience of the exhibited art.

The research employs a number of different research methodologies suited to the theoretical, empirical and experimental aspects of the work. These methodologies include: Historical-comparative research, Theoretical and aesthetical research, Qualitative and quantitative research. This research has developed a unique strategy for exploring and analyzing the qualities of light in the art exhibition space, based on the approach known as experimental phenomenology. Using this approach for the study of light in architecture, the research looks at five different case studies of art museums built during the second half of the 20th century. In each case, the specific conditions that have led to success or failure in the design and building of the museum are elaborated, and the importance of natural light in this process is elucidated.

The research includes an experimental chapter on one of the case studies, the Ein Harod Museum, Israel, which is seeking to undergo a light restoration project. The research explores how different state-of-the-art natural light technologies could restore the original quality of light within the framework of requirements for the conservation and display of the museum’s exhibitions. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, the research examines and compares these technologies so as to provide a set of tools for the museum designer.

The work concludes with a discussion of various issues arising from the different aspects of light in the museum of art. The discussion highlights the differences in character between natural and artificial light, stressing the irreplaceable quality of natural light in the exhibition environment. The research also criticizes the dominant white cube paradigm for museum design and points out on alternative possibilities. Finally, the research elaborates on the complexity of the planning process, and stresses the need for a critical relationship between the architect, the museum directors, and other professionals for achieving the museum design targets.