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Measuring Light Levels

for Works on Display

Written by Mickie McCormick
In deciding on levels of illumination in galleries, the primary consideration is the light sensitivity of
the objects to be displayed. If the objects to be shown
are light-sensitive, the two most important factors are
the intensity of the light and whether or not ultraviolet
(UV) rays are present.
Neither of these factors can be judged merely
by observation. It is not possible to rely upon eyesight
to give accurate information about light intensity
because eyes adapt to changing light conditions too
efficiently. The amount of ultraviolet radiation cannot
be judged by eye because that part of the spectrum
cannot be seen. Accurate information about both of
these factors can only be determined by instruments.
Since ultraviolet radiation must be avoided completely, it is easier to deal with that problem than it is
to deal with the problem of light intensity, which is a
matter of judging relative amounts and balancing
Ultraviolet radiation is very destructive to all
organic materials. However, since UV radiation is
found primarily in daylight and in fluorescent lights,
we can protect objects on display simply by shielding
them from those light sources. Incandescent lighting,
which has virtually no UV component, is preferred for
gallery spaces. If daylight or fluorescent lights are
present in galleries, ultraviolet filters must be used on
the windows or lighting fixtures. UV filters usually
have little effect on the visible light coming through
Although it is treated separately in this technical note, lighting is only one of the environmental
factors that must be taken into consideration. Temperature and relative humidity are vital factors that
interact with lighting concerns.

Units of Measurement
The two common units of light measurement
are the "lux" and the "footcandle." Both units are used
in literature on gallery lighting. A footcandle represents more illumination than a lux. The relationship is
1 footcandle = 10.76 lux.

Recommended Light Levels

5 to 10 footcandles (approx. 50 to 100 lux) is
currently considered to be the maximum allowable
light level for very sensitive materials, such as prints,
drawings, watercolors, dyed fabrics, manuscripts, and
botanical specimens. Up to 15 footcandles (approx.
150 lux) is thought to be appropriate for oil paintings,
most photographs, ivory, wood and lacquer objects.
Metal, stone, glass, ceramic, and enamel objects are
generally thought to be unaffected by strong light.
However, heat from lighting fixtures may seriously
affect objects, even those that are not susceptible to
light damage. Fixtures must allow heat to dissipate
through the rear.
These broad guidelines are intended to be
conservative enough to preserve most art objects from
severe light damage while on display. They are
especially helpful in determining how to light temporary exhibitions. However, they do not take into
account factors which might determine the acceptable
light level for any individual work, such as particular
pigments or media that are either especially lightsensitive or not sensitive at all. We recommend that
you do research on the media used, and consult a
conservator for advice on specific works in your
permanent collection. Information can often be
obtained from artists about their palettes; many paints
used today are considered light-fast, and greater
levels of illumination are therefore appropriate for

Measuring Light Intensity

Measuring Ultraviolet Radiation

With a Footcandle Meter or a Lux Meter:

Light meters that convert the reading directly to
footcandles or lux can be ordered (see Sources). They
will measure either the light from the source (incident
light) or the light reflected from the object. Follow the
manufacturer's instructions.

A meter for measuring ultraviolet radiation is

rather expensive. Since it is used primarily to check
UV filters when first installed, borrowing or renting
one from a major museum or service organization is
an alternative to purchasing.

With a camera light meter: The method

recommended by the Canadian Conservation Institute
measures reflected light. It requires a 35mm single
lens reflex camera with a built-in light meter, and a
white card measuring 12" by 16".
1. Set the camera film-speed reading at 800 ASA,
and set the shutter speed at 1/60 of a second.
2. Have someone hold the white card in front of the
art work and at the same angle as the art work.
3. Position the camera so that the card just fills the
view screen.
4. Adjust the aperture setting until the camera's
light meter shows a correct exposure.
The following chart shows how the f-stop reading
relates to lux and footcandles:
indicates 50 lux or 4.6 footcandles
f5.6 indicates100 lux or 9.3 footcandles
indicates 200 lux or 18.6 footcandles
indicates 400 lux or 37.2 footcandles
indicates 800 lux or 74.3 footcandles
The results of this method are not as accurate as those
of a lux or footcandle meter, but we found them to be
within 3 footcandles of the footcandle meter reading.

Measuring Fading
There are inexpensive 'fadometer' cards which
use standardized swatches of blue wool to measure
fading. These can be used to monitor gallery conditions, either during exhibitions or, ideally, before art
objects are installed. (See Sources.)

Controlling Light Damage

We want to find a level of lighting that will
make it possible for visitors to see the objects well,
and yet produce as little light damage as possible. The
only way to completely protect light-sensitive objects
from damage is to keep them in the dark; every exposure to light is to some extent damaging. Once the
decision has been made to display an object, the only
way to control the amount of light damage is to adjust
the level of intensity and/or to limit the length of time
on display. The Canadian Conservation Institute has
produced a "Light Damage Slide Rule" which makes it
possible not only to calculate light damage to an
object ahead of time, but also to calculate the variations that would result from changing one or both
factors - intensity and duration. (See Sources.)
There are many mechanical means that may be
used to reduce the duration of light exposure - turning
off gallery lights when no viewers are present, using
movement detectors to turn on lights automatically
when someone approaches, installing visitor-activated
light switches, or using cloth covers on display cases
that stand in lighted areas. Rotating works on permanent display is often necessary, and although it varies
with the object, a useful guideline is three months per
year on display under controlled lighting conditions.
Accurate records of light exposure must be part of the
permanent records for light-sensitive objects, so that
informed decisions can be made about displaying

Lux or Footcandle Meters:
(Be sure to get a meter that will read clearly down to 5
footcandles or 50 lux.)
Extech Instruments sells three different light meters of
differing cost and quality. Available from Zefon
International, (800) 282-0073, http://www.zefon.com/
Light meter from University Products, (800) 6281912, http://www.archivalsuppliers.com
Minolta sells a high end light meter, model T-10.
Available from Minolta, (888) 473-2656, http://

Crawford UV Monitor Type 763. Available from

University Products, (800) 628-1912, http://
Other supplies:
"Light Damage Slide Rule" produced by the Canadian
Conservation Instutite. Available from Gaylord Archival, (800) 448-6160, http://www.gaylord.com
Textile Fading Cards. Available from University
Products, http://www.archivalsuppliers.com/
UV Fluorescent light filters and window filtering film.
Available from Gaylord Arhival (see above) and
University Products, http://ww.archivalsuppliers.com/

Spectra Candela model II and II-A meters. Available

from Spectra Cine Corp., (818) 954-9222, http://
www.clubfree.com/spectra/candela/UV Meters

Canadian Conservation Institute. "Ultraviolet Filters
for Fluorescent Lamps." CCI Notes 2/1. Ottawa:
Canadian Conservation Institute, 1983.
_____. "Daylight Fluro-Spray Floodlight." CCI Notes
2/2. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1983.
_____. "Track Lighting." CCI Notes 2/3. Ottawa:
Canadian Conservation Institute, 1983.
_____. "CCI Environmental Monitoring Kit." CCI
Notes 2/4. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute,

Lafontaine, R.H. Recommended Environmental

Monitors for Museums, Archives and Art Galleries.
CCI Technical Bulletin #3. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute.
_____. Environmental Norms for Canadian Museums,
Art Galleries and Archives. CCI Technical Bulletin
#5. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1981.
Macleod, K.J. Museum Lighting. CCI Technical
Bulletin #4, revised edition. Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute, 1982.

Clapp, Anne F. Curatorial Care of Works of Art on

Paper. New York: Nick Lyons Books, 1987.

Ontario Museum Association and Toronto Area

Archivists Group. Museum and Archival Supplies
Handbook. 3rd revised ed. Toronto: 1985.

Doloff, Francis W. and Roy L. Perkinson. How to Care

for Works of Art on Paper. 3rd ed. Boston: Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, 1979.

Roth, Evan. "Museum Lighting: Illumination Hangs in

the Balance." Museum News, May/June, 1989. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Ellis, Margaret Holben. The Care of Prints and Drawings. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1995.

Stolow, Nathan. Conservation and Exhibitions: Packing, Transport, Storage and Environmental Consideration. London: Butterworths, 1987.

Feller, Robert L. "Control of Deteriorating Effects of

Light Upon Museum Objects," Museum, vol. 17, no.
2. UNESCO, 1964.

Thomson, Garry. The Museum Environment. 2nd. ed.

London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1994.

The Exhibition Alliance thanks the following for reviewing a draft of this technical note and making suggestions: Stefan Michalski, Senior Conservation Scientist, Environment and Deterioration Research, Canadian
Conservation Institute; and Hanna Szczepanowska, Paper Conservator, Division for Historic Preservation,
Bureau of Historic Sites, Peebles Island.
This publication is made possible, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts.
1990 by The Exhibition Alliance, Inc., Hamilton, N.Y. Revised 2001. All rights reserved.
For more information, call or write:
The Exhibition Alliance
P.O. Box 345
Hamilton, NY 13346
(315) 824-2510