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GCI Research on the Destructive Effects of Light Featured in California Science Center Exhibition FADE: The Dark Side of Light, to run October 10, 2007, through May 31, 2008

September 24, 2007

LOS ANGELES—Jim Druzik is obsessed with light.  More particularly, he’s concerned with the destructive power of light on priceless museum treasures, and it’s his pioneering work in conservation and preservation that could protect great works of art.

Druzik, a senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, has for the past five years been investigating how to mitigate light damage without compromising the museum visitor’s viewing pleasure.  Druzik’s work explores the nature of light and why it permanently alters the objects it touches; for example, changing the powder blue paper of an old master sketch into a murky gray.  His research, conducted in a windowless basement laboratory at the Getty Center, will literally help museum visitors see art in a whole new light.

“I’m looking to reduce the inevitable light damage caused during display by altering the lighting source in subtle yet powerful ways that have not been technically feasible until recently,” explains Druzik.

Currently, museums display light-sensitive artifacts under low levels of incandescent lighting, which means many visitors perceive less color and fewer details.  It’s a trade-off that is not ideal:  The low light helps to preserve the artifact, but it also alters the viewer’s perception of the original work of art.  

Druzik’s ultimate goal is to find the elusive balance between conservation, aesthetics and visual satisfaction for the museum visitor.  To that end, he has built an Experimental Lighting Facility at the Getty, dubbed “ELF,” which realistically simulates a typical museum gallery, allowing his team the flexibility to control the important display variables.  Track lighting lines the ceiling of the room, and museum display cases are outfitted with flexible fiber optics and radio controlled illumination levels.  Framed artwork decorates the walls.
Sample viewing populations of museum professionals and volunteers have visited these rooms, evaluating - via a specially designed questionnaire the perceived color differences in green-red, blue-yellow and brightness color perception scales.  Under each light level, the responses to the questions change – were details in the drawing clear, which details stood out the most, what color is the background?  These answers, and many others, will help Druzik and his team in their search for perfectly filtered light. 

This research, led by Druzik and his colleagues at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), is currently the basis of an interactive public exhibition created in collaboration with The California Science Center.  Entitled FADE: The Dark Side of Light, the 1200 sq. ft. exhibition, which blends science and art, explains the nature of light and its destructive power.  Through an audio and visual program, guests can zoom in and learn how light damages materials at the atomic level.

The exhibit also features a series of projected images which first appear and then slowly fade from view.  Visitors see further dramatic evidence of light damage through photographs, works of art, and a collection of everyday items. The exhibit also offers suggestions for mitigating the damage on visitors’ own personal treasures, such as valued family photographs. 

“Saving everyday items like family photographs or children’s drawings can be as easy as storing them properly in a dry, cool place that doesn’t receive much light,” said Druzik.  “And when viewing them, it’s important to realize that the simple act of rendering them visible is what contributes to their ultimate destruction. There is no such thing as a safe light level so the best one can achieve is a reasonable degree of control in how rapid the decline will be.”

To discover ways of mitigating the damaging effect of light, guests to the exhibition also can experiment with how certain materials reflect, transmit or absorb electromagnetic energy. Much like the experiments conducted inside Druzik’s ELF, one interactive display invites guests to illuminate paintings with selected wavelengths of light in order to compare the effect with those using light from the full spectrum. These modified light spectra are created with very complex layers of thin coatings on glass filters designed by Professor Carl Dirk at UTEP. A companion interactive display lets visitors explore how color and contrast affect their perception.

In the meantime, back in the basement of the GCI, Druzik’s research goes on. 

FADE is on view at the California Science Center in Los Angeles from October 10 through May 31, 2008.

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Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications

About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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The Getty Conservation Institute works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts-broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. The Institute serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the dissemination of the results of both its own work and the work of others in the field. In all its endeavors, the GCI focuses on the creation and delivery of knowledge that will benefit the professionals and organizations responsible for the conservation of the world's cultural heritage. To learn more, subscribe to the GCI's E-Bulletin by visiting