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Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, UK

Issue 65 Feb / Mar 2012 : Retail : Museum

Architect: PAGE PARK Lighting Design: FOTO-MA

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has made the brave decision to go all out for LED in its galleries. After much testing by FOTO-MA, Mike Stoane Lighting fittings with Xicato modules were used.

Of the National Galleries Scotland portfolio, the Portrait Gallery was always something of the shy, retiring type compared to its grander National Gallery and Modern Art siblings, also housed in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Gallery, sitting proudly on The Mound in the centre of the Scottish capital, is one of Scotland’s top free visitor attractions and Edinburgh’s second most-visited attraction after the Castle. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is set in its own beautiful parkland and features works by Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud. By contrast, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has, since opening its doors in 1889 on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, lived a rather sheltered and schizophrenic life, despite its grand, neo-gothic appearance as originally designed by architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson.

James Holloway CBE, director of the Gallery, explains: “The building has suffered from benign neglect over the last 100 years. One of the reasons is that it was shared between the Portrait Gallery and the Museum of Antiquities. Bit by bit we were allowed some of Antiquities’ space but we’ve never really had the budget or the will to reconfigure it because we always knew that at some stage we would be thoroughly refurbishing the building.”

This led to the Portrait Gallery being labeled as a ‘hidden gem’ by those in the know but, all too often, it was overlooked by the less initiated in favour of its more glamorous kin.

Not any more. Now the Gallery’s light is well and truly out from under the bushel thanks to a remarkable transformation by Glasgow-based architects Page Park and an all-LED gallery lighting scheme, believed to be the first of its kind, designed by Edinburgh-based Gavin Fraser of FOTO-MA, using Mike Stoane Lighting track fittings equipped with Xicato modules.

Holloway goes on: “There were some very inadequate and odd spaces with false ceilings and lighting that wasn’t fit for purpose so when we had the chance to take over the whole building, around four years ago, that gave us the opportunity to completely refurbish including a new lighting system.”

Gavin Fraser recalls the state of the building at the beginning of the process. “At the beginning it was like two buildings in one with the Portrait Gallery on one side and Antiquities on the other. Latterly the Antiquities side was essentially used for warehousing so there were just fluorescent bulkhead battens throughout. There was no delicacy! Yet the Portrait side was one of Jonathan Speirs’ first projects with LDP so it was very elegant but obviously outdated. The lighting needed to have a completely fresh perspective and the brief was all about opening up the space to light.”

The renovation, which took place over two years when the gallery was shut to the public, has completely opened up the building allowing uninterupted views through the building and giving access to the public to all three floors for the first time.

According to Holloway, daylighting was an important aspect of the renovation: “The brief was also about using as much daylight as possible taking into account the delicacy of the artworks. What we wanted to do was to give the feeling of light changing so the pictures have a kind of dynamism that you lose so often in a modern gallery. The lighting also had to be sympathetic to the space. As part of the process we looked at different types of LED lighting and I thought it looked absolutely fantastic. I am thrilled with the result because you get the colours standing out and it is very economical. The combination of daylight and artificial light works extremely well and it’s very controllable too.”

This is particularly noticable in the Ramsay Room, the centrepiece of the gallery, where a huge skylight, previously hidden from view, allows daylight to gush in to the centre of the space whilst frosting on the edge of the skylight diffuses light where the paintings hang.

At the other end of the scale the Photography Room operates at the normally prohibitive 35 lux level, way under the 50 lux recommended, which is possible due the uniformity and excellent CRI of the LED system

“The curator has asked me on numerous occasions if it really is 35 lux! Everyone is conditioned by what they have experienced over a long period of time and you expect, in exhibitions like this, to have to go really close to the photograph to see the detail,” comments Fraser.

The building now gives people different experiences depending on which gallery they walk through - eg, the library is very Victorian, the Photography Room is very modern  - and throughout the lighting is carefully and deliberately layered depending on the artworks that are illuminated.


Paul James, mondo*arc editor, talks about the LED lighting system at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with lighting designer Gavin Fraser of FOTO-MA; Roger Sexton of Xicato; Dave Hollingsbee of Mike Stoane Lighting; Jacqueline Ridge, Keeper of Conservation at National Galleries of Scotland and James Holloway CBE, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Paul James (PJ): Were you actively looking for an LED system to replace the existing lighting?

Gavin Fraser (GF): No. The original tender two years ago was much more traditional in that it had fluorescent and low voltage with pockets of LED (around 20% of the project). However, the cost was too much so we took the track lighting out of the contract to be dealt with at a later date. Two years later the technology had advanced so fast that the options were much greater and an all LED solution was possible. After lots of testing we chose the Mike Stoane / Xicato solution due to the quality of the light. It was also cheaper than the other systems that we tested so that was an added benefit. Incredibly in the six months after agreeing the new tender, technology had improved even further so we were able to get 500lm extra per light fitting for no extra cost. As we’ve been going along we’ve been very editorial as to what we’ve been doing and now the galleries have plenty of spares. You always design so that you’ve got 5-10% more but we’ve ended up with 20% more! That means that other buildings in the National Galleries portfolio will benefit.

Dave Hollingsbee (DH): We’ve been working with Xicato pretty much since they started. We showed Gavin the Track X with the Xicato module a few years ago. It was already generating a lot of interest because of the CRI, the colour consistency, the durability and the lockability. It was a little restricted on reflectors and drivers but it is now much easier and there are many suppliers we can now go to depending on our requirements. Xicato are very good at communicating new developments to us as it comes online which is important because every job that comes along has different requirements.

GF: That’s a key part of this. When Mike Stoane first submitted their tender, their light levels weren’t powerful enough for some applications. But, in the period it took to make the decision, an advance had been made and they came back to us with the solution. So now we’ve got something that exceeds what we were testing. In a funny way, it’s like old technology because it’s based on reflectors. If something wasn’t quite right we’d take the fitting apart and change the reflector or the lens. It’s a great way of doing it!

DH: That’s how the Fatty came to be developed. Although we could get 1,500 lumens out of our Track Type X fittings there were still some situations at high height levels where we need to increase the output with a tight beam. We asked Xicato if they knew of anything new in reflector technology and they came back with a 10° angle, traffic cone-type reflector but it was quite large. With trepidation we presented this to Gavin and he liked it, knowing that the size wouldn’t be an issue as they were going to be installed at a high level. Being a larger size it also enabled us to run at 1A with a 2,000 lumen output.

Jacqueline Ridge (JR): The strength of the project was that we were able to keep an eye on what was happening day to day but at the same time be very conscious of what we were trying to achieve. I remember thinking, right at the beginning, that LED would be an option but four years ago they weren’t good enough.

GF: Even two years ago we knew we could, for the most part, get enough light from LED but we were concerned about the quality of light. It’s only in the last year that we’ve been able to get exact colour renderings on the paintings. That was very difficult to establish. We had lots of manufacturers pitching themselves with different colour temperatures that were a lot cooler than we wanted – 3200K to 3500K. Everything is 3000K here.

Roger Sexton (RS): It’s not the actual colour temperature, it’s about having a more natural light. I disagree with the argument that LED lighting is different to halogen and that you see the paintings in a new light. You should see the paintings as the artist intended and that has been achieved here.

GF: We’ve had low voltage fittings sitting next to the LED ones and you can’t tell the difference unless you’re measuring data.

PJ: Were there any concerns from the conservators about the use of new technology and perhaps not knowing enough about the effects?

JR: There were concerns with excessive loading at the blue end of the spectrum but, looking at the data, this system seems to give us the best of both worlds. I’ve been part of the green discussions for the galleries so I was very keen to save energy. But that couldn’t be at the price of viewing or caring for the artwork. The timing of the technology advances meant we were able to have our cake and eat it!

RS: There are three things to consider. Firstly, the visual aspect – how the viewer can make sense of the paintings; secondly, conservation – the damage potential; but also thirdly, the energy savings.

JR: There must be a flaw in there somewhere! I remember going to a conference in Denmark four years ago when they announced that the Danish National Museum was using LED. I visited the museum and thought: “This isn’t for us, it looks like LED.” Whereas I don’t think you notice the difference here. And the bonus for us is because we can keep the light levels even lower than the classic 50 lux we can keep exhibits out longer, particularly the photography range that is the most light sensitive.

PJ: Did you have to change the low voltage fittings for new exhibitions in case they failed?

James Holloway (JH): Yes we did. The Main Hall was always a bit of a muddle. There were a variety of lighting systems in place and I remember moving things around myself from time to time. It’s wonderful to have cleared all that up. The other thing we’ve managed to do is to maximise the daylighting, not only from above but from the side too. That’s nice for the public because they can look out of the window and see the sort of scenes depicted in the artworks.

PJ: So you find that the LEDs combine seamlessly with the daylighting?

JH: Yes it does. The daylight gives an animation to the picture. I remember years ago going to the National Gallery in London as a student and seeing the great Dutch landscapes and seeing the daylight animate them and I suddenly realised that’s what they were all about. I thought that if we could get that here it would be marvellous.
Light is so important to pictures in so many ways. Many eighteenth century pictures were meant to be viewed by candlelight so that some of the detail would sparkle with the flickering of the naked frame. It’s that that I really wanted to see here with the help of LED lighting.

PJ: The gallery lighting has many different layers. Can you explain the reasoning behind that?

GF: All the tracks are very simply switched, there’s no remote dimming in the galleries. All the fittings are dimmed at source. There are situations where there are works on paper where you need 50 – 100 lux next to works that can cope with 200 – 300 lux. Therefore we had to be very careful to achieve that low light level but not diminish the panorama as you move around the space. That’s been very challenging for us to make sure the light levels blend into each other without becoming too obvious for the public. At the same time we didn’t want it to look uniform.

RS: That’s another important point about the longevity of the system, if you’re not just aiming them precisely but also setting the light level according to the type of picture you are illuminating. This would be a very onerous process if they were halogen and you had to change the lamps regularly.

GF: Also, the fittings are easily accessible so you can clean them with telescopic dusters - that answers the argument that you still need an expensive maintenance procedure to prevent dust build-up. All of the fittings are Allen key locked so it’s very easy to adjust the settings if something changes.

PJ: You’ll be aware of the very vociferous debate amongst lighting designers about the use of LED in museums. What is your opinion?

GF: When approaching this project I did have my doubts about using LED. You have to be confident and assured as a designer because your name’s being put against it at the end of the day. This completed project is the result of a long process of investigation and analysis. The fact that it changed from Tender 1 (when only 20% of the lighting was LED) to Tender 2 (when it changed to 100%) is testament to how the technology has evolved.
You live in your time and you have to accept that not everything is ideal. I don’t agree with the banning of the tungsten bulb. It’s a knee-jerk, draconian response to politics. However, if politicians decide to change your playing field, despite industry not really having a perfect solution, you have to make the best of what is available. I think this project is testament to that. If anything, the solution we have here has exceeded expectations.
We also have the benefit of the end supplier (Mike Stoane Lighting) being on our doorstep so we have a chain of local people who are responsible and, of course, the carbon footprint is extremely small.
All of these things are part of the decision of what you do. I wouldn’t say that for every situation I would choose LED but I’m not afraid of the future. A lot of emotive words are used in the debate about LED and I think it lessens the debate because it’s not balanced. This whole project has been a collective process and that is vital to a project’s success.

RS: A lot of the debate is centred around earlier, single phosphor LEDs that have a pronounced peak in the blue spectrum that had an effect on sensitive pigments. With dual phosphor and better LEDs and modules, this is now not the case. If you look at research from the Getty (see Blue Wool test table, below left), the fading of pigments is less than with halogen.

GF: One of the key things that helped the conservators was that they had access to spectral analysis software that any different light source can be plugged into. Instead of giving analyses that were independent of an overview, it meant they could compare all light sources together. That was a key moment for all of us. It revealed that the problems with LVTH sources – the peaks at the red end of the spectrum and thermal issues – were more damaging than the statements being made about the blue spikes of LED. If you look at the studies arguing against the use of LED in museums, they are based on technology that is five years old. Technology has moved so far in that period that it wasn’t a scientific response, it’s a lot of people perpetuating soundbites.

RS: Another point is the efficacy of LEDs where values of 35lm/W are quoted. But this Mike Stoane Lighting system is achieving 60lm/W from our modules.

GF: We’re even dimming those down and adding louvres because they’re so powerful.

DH: We have on-board dimmers on 95% of the fittings but towards the end of the project we came across some spaces that needed mains dimming. Again, this was something we weren’t able to do at the beginning of the project. It’s been the story of the project really – evolution rather than revolution. That’s something we intend to continue to do – using the same system but tweaking it to make things smaller, better, more efficient.


Pics: Andrew Lee unless stated

  • Pic: Kat McDonald Photography
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