ETC helps show ancient artwork in a new light

Date Posted: 9/23/2014

ETC Source Four LEDs illuminate the Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibit in London's Victoria & Albert Museum, photo © Ed Reeve

When lighting designer Amarasri Songcharoen (aka Marci Song) of Seam Design was looking for the best lighting fixtures to light the 500-year-old Raphael Cartoons - a series of large art pieces by Rafael on exhibit in London's Victoria & Albert Museum - she knew she needed something special. It had to be something that would output minimal or no ultraviolet light, as well as provide a perfectly-lit atmosphere for a giant mirrored sculpture that was to be installed as part of the London Design Festival.

As part of the month-long Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibition, design agency Barber Osgerby developed a system of two giant mirrored aeronautical 'wings' that were suspended in the room and would slowly rotate on motors, altering the reflections of the Raphael Cartoons as they did. To light the artworks, she used 16 ETC Source Four LED™ Series 2 Lustr® fixtures , controlled by an ETC Ion® control desk .

"We were asked to provide a lighting strategy and design for the room and of the sculpture to reveal the Barber Osgerby sculpture in its best light," says Song. "We also had to pay careful consideration to providing appropriate light sources and light levels for priceless art pieces, which are on loan from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II."

ETC Source Four LEDs illuminate the Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibit in London's Victoria & Albert Museum, photo © Ed Reeve

The sculpture's wings were clad with a highly polished mirror finish. Song says that the best-lit effect was to light the elements surrounding it, rather than lighting the piece itself - but since the floating objects occupied most of the view to the ceiling - the existing high-level lights for the artwork would be blocked periodically, making them unsuitable for this installation. 

Seam Design's proposal therefore involved a completely new system for lighting the room, using striking illumination to the Raphael Cartoons and a dramatic wash to the floor. The Cartoons are then reflected on the wings above them, so that they can be seen by the people standing underneath. 

"Through its slow rotations," describes Song, "the sculpture is disorientating and mesmerizing, emerging from high level in an uncanny way. The dramatic light enhances these experiences."

ETC Source Four LEDs illuminate the Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibit in London's Victoria & Albert Museum, photo © Ed Reeve

Each of the cartoons, which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and were intended to hang below Michelangelo's famous ceiling in the Vatican Palace, are up to 3.5m high by 5.3m wide (11.4ft x 17.4ft), which meant that even in the very large 46m long x 25m wide (151ft x 82ft) gallery, Seam had just 70cm (2.3ft) of clearance between the wings and the face of the artwork's surfaces. They therefore needed a product capable of very wide beam-throw that still allowed for an ability to control light spill to the walls - plus, with ultraviolet light being a danger to artwork - they needed a low- or zero-UV fixture, making LED the obvious choice. 

"ETC's Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr with a 90-degree lens tethered to an ETC Ion desk met all of our requirements," explains Song. "We were able to shutter and frame the light to enhance the artwork. The success of the lighting scheme is that the polished wings rely heavily on the illumination of the cartoons and the floor to be perceived. In the intimate darkness of the room, with focused light taking your attention to the artwork, the sculpture becomes very mysterious - almost imperceptible until they catch the light and reflections illuminate their surfaces. This is an incredible dimension to add to the experience of the installation, which is an epic feat of engineering in its own right and exhibits attributes entirely beyond its impressiveness as a machine."

Seam worked closely with ETC and Hawthorns, who installed the lighting and helped to program the color tuning and settings. The fixtures were set to a very warm 2,600-degree color temperature - the color of candlelight - helping the Cartoons appear almost like tapestries as they may have looked in the 16th century. 

ETC Source Four LEDs illuminate the Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibit in London's Victoria & Albert Museum, photo © Ed Reeve

Attending the launch event, ETC's regional manager for the UK and Ireland, Mark White, was asked a number of times if the lighting on the cartoons was really LED and not tungsten. "LEDs are usually associated with the blue-white cold light fitted these days to bathrooms and the like," he says, "so to see apparent candlelight coming from the Source Four LEDs was an eye-opener."

"ETC and Hawthorns were very responsive, particularly on a fast-track install of two weeks with schedules changing day to day as we were getting near the opening," concludes Song. "They were amazing teams to work with. And we heard that the museum likes it so much that there was talk to make the fixtures part of a permanent installation for the gallery."

The Double Space for the BMW Precision & Poetry in Motion exhibition is on display at London's Victoria & Albert Museum from September 13 through October 24 , 2014. Entry is free.