Protecting Works of Art from Light Damage

Light is an incredibly important factor in how we perceive art. The visible light spectrum brings us the beautiful and seemingly infinite colors we see in a drawing, painting, sculpture or film, and a well-lit gallery or museum is essential to properly viewing works in an exhibit or collection.

Conversely, however, light also threatens works of art. Too much exposure to UV radiation from both natural and artificial light can damage works of art over time, sometimes irreparably. Even low levels of light can cause damage to a painting, drawing or other piece, if the work is exposed for long enough periods of time.

UV radiation causes almost every type of damage imaginable to works of art through either fading or a photochemical reaction, which changes the artwork at the molecular level. This damage includes cracking and lifting of surfaces as well as faded colors and distortion of the materials. Few materials commonly used in works of art are safe from UV radiation damage: oil, watercolor and acrylic paint, textiles, ink, dyes, carbon, wallpaper, wood, ivory, photographs, resin and wax are all considered susceptible to UV radiation damage.

Museum directors and curators are well aware of the dangers that light damage poses to works of art, and major museums in particular invest time and money into setting up proper lighting schemes and carefully monitoring the levels of UV radiation and light exposure that works of art are subjected to. One of the most common preventative measures for a light damage-preventing environment is outfitting windows with light-diffusing scrims and glazed glass that blocks UV radiation from entering the museum.

Curators are also careful to place works of art away from light that will hit them directly. Artificial lighting, contrary to popular belief, can also give off UV radiation, especially fluorescent tubes and incandescent lamps. LED and fiber optic lamps give off the lowest levels of UV radiation and are the best options for artificial lighting in a museum or gallery.

Finally, a UV meter can be used to measure the levels of UV radiation that works of art are exposed to. A datalogging radiometer can keep track of UV radiation levels, as well as the time and duration of varying levels of intensity. Radiometers alert museum personnel to otherwise difficult to detect changes in UV levels that need to be addressed. This kind of technology is essential to protecting works of art for future generations.

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