Thursday, January 5, 2012

How Many Collection Managers Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb?

     Recently I had to change a light bulb in a hard-to-reach area of an exhibit, which is why today’s post will be about lighting.  I will confess up front that dealing with the lighting in the museum is probably my least favorite task.  That old adage about not being able to please everyone was probably created by someone trying to light an exhibit!  Visitors to the museum tend to comment about the general light levels being too low, or about certain artifacts not being spotlighted.  It also seems at times that I hear from everyone else in the museum whenever there’s a burned-out bulb!

This is the case with the burned out bulb – you can’t see the lights because of the diffusers in the ceiling of the case. Notice that there are a number of fragile artifacts in the case, and that there is not enough room inside for a ladder.

        So, why don’t I just add more lights to the galleries?  I’ve touched on the subject of lighting previously in the post on the collection room.  Exposure to light can damage many materials, including textiles, leather, wood, and paper.  The damage done is not reversible.  The simplest method of reducing the amount of light and thus the amount of damage done to the artifacts is to lower the light levels.  Displaying artifacts involves walking a pretty tight line between maintaining relatively safe levels of light for the artifacts versus keeping the artifacts visible to the museum’s visitors.
     There are also other methods of helping to reduce light damage.  Exterior windows can have special UV filtering films placed on the glass.  Light diffusers can be used over interior lights.  Fiber-optic projectors can be used to illuminate displays while eliminating UV light.  Exhibit cases can utilize motion sensors which turn on lights only when there are people nearby.  In a more low-tech approach, items can be placed behind doors or curtains which visitors can open.  Generally, a combination of methods is utilized in order to best display and protect the artifacts.

           Protecting the artifacts from too much light seems to ensure that the lights are difficult to reach though, especially for collection managers of a somewhat shorter stature!  It’s not as simple and straightforward as changing a light bulb at home.  The use of a ladder is always required, plus many times artifacts and risers need to be moved out of the case so that nothing (or no one!) falls on them, plus the job ideally should be completed before the museum opens to eliminate the possibility of the artifacts being vandalized or stolen.    

Here the artifacts and a riser in the area below the burned out bulb have been removed to protect the artifacts and to make room for the ladder. The artifacts were carefully placed on a padded cart and moved a safe distance away from the work area.

     In this situation, I needed to enlist some additional help (thanks Tom!) in changing the bulb.  One lesson I have learned at the museum is to ask for help when needed.  I was fortunate in learning this without injuring anything but my pride!  Dangling from a sprinkler pipe when a ladder slipped out from under me was an experience I don’t want to repeat, so in the more difficult areas I now ask for assistance.

Here’s Tom changing the light bulb – he assured me that he was smiling for the photo!

Success! The bulb has been replaced, the risers and artifacts are back in place, the doors are secured again, and the artifacts and staff members involved are safe.

     I’ll bet you never knew that changing a light bulb could be so complicated! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.    

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