Weston Park Museum
Return to main page > Resources

Irish illuminations

The text below was that submitted to Museum Practice Magazine which was used for their article ‘Irish illuminations’ and was published in Museum Practice, issue 14, spring 2000.

Chester Beatty Library & Galleries, Dublin

The Chester Beatty Library in Dublin recently moved its extensive collections from its old home on the outskirts of Dublin to a new city centre location. The I£11.5 million development includes state-of-the-art Galleries to house the priceless collection of works of art from the great cultures and religions of the world.

The CBL Galleries display a large collection of Early Christian, Islamic and East Asian manuscripts, books, paintings, prints and icons. The American mining engineer Sir Alfred Chester Beatty assembled the collection over many years. He was a great art collector who travelled the world in search of treasures and employed a team of outstanding advisers to help him. Chester Beatty brought his collection to Ireland in 1950. When he died in 1968 the collection was bequeathed to a trust for the benefit of the public.

The Building

The Library’s new home is within the precincts of Dublin Castle. It is part new build and part refurbishment. The old part is horseshoe shaped and was built in the mid-18th century and later re-modelled by Ireland’s most important nineteenth century architect, Francis Johnson. It was used as offices for the Revenue Commissioners in the early years of the Irish State. It had remained unoccupied for 15 years, until the recent restoration work by the Office of Public Works Architecture Services. The new building sits at the open end of the horseshoe and provides a three-story fully serviced vertical box to house the new galleries. It is linked to the old by bridges and a new glazed roof which covers the space in the centre of the horseshoe to provide an atrium.

The development of the Library and the restoration of the 18th Century Clock Tower building at Dublin Castle were funded by the Irish Government with the assistance of the European Development Fund and the trustees of the Library. In addition to the new purpose built Galleries, there is also a lecture theatre, café, and shop. On the non-public side there are offices, storage and conservation facilities.

The project was completed in two phases and the fit out of the former Clock Tower building and extension for the Chester Beatty Library commenced in January ’99. The architect for the project was Angela Rolfe of the Office of Public Works. The exhibition designers were Event Communications, the M&E Consultants were VMRA of Dublin.

The Collection

The collections have been divided roughly into sacred and secular. The Galleries on the first floor display works from a range of different cultures from Europe to East Asia. These include one of the finest collections of Chinese Jade Books in the world; miniature paintings from the courts of the Mughal Emperors of India and brilliantly illuminated manuscripts from Persia and Turkey, as well as European manuscripts prints and drawings and fine printed books. Visitors can study the art of print, the manuscript and miniature painting in specially commissioned audio-visual displays.

The second floor displays are dedicated to the great religions of the world; Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. The layout encourages visitors to reflect in a serene environment. Audio-visual programmes explore the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the life of Christ and the life of the Buddha, and the rites of passage – birth, marriage and death – in different belief systems.

Outstanding exhibits in these galleries include great illuminated copies of the Qur’an dating from the 9th to the 19th century AD; ancient papyri, including the famous Egyptian love poems of around 1100 BC; some of the very earliest and most important Gospel and other New Testament texts dating to c. 200 AD. The Chester Beatty collection of New Testament texts is a primary source for the study of early Christianity while the Qur’an manuscripts represent the finest expressions of Islam in calligraphy and ornamental detail. Also on display are fine scrolls and other religious paintings from China, Japan, Tibet and South and Southeast Asia.

In addition to the permanent exhibitions a number of temporary exhibitions of world-renowned exhibits are planned by the CBL Galleries each year. An exhibition of the original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses, will open in this summer. The manuscript, on loan from the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, will be on display in Ireland for the first time. In November 2000, the Chester Beatty Library will host an exhibition tracing the origins of the Gospel texts.

The Lighting

Lighting Design & Technology (LD&T) were brought in to design the lighting for all the gallery areas. Their expertise in providing good visual environments in low light level areas was especially important as most items in the collection required low conservation levels of lighting (1). The design team was united that a well-balanced visual environment was needed to make the experience of entering the galleries both rewarding and stimulating (2). No one wanted to see the ‘black-box’ approach to 50 Lux exhibit lighting used.

To achieve this it is necessary to provide an adaptation route for the visitors so that their eyes are adapted to the low lighting levels that they will encounter in the gallery. This is partly achieved by the building design itself. Visitors enter from the bright outdoors into the atrium space. Here their eyes adapt to the lower internal light levels whilst they orientate them selves and view the introductory displays on Chester Beatty. They then move up the building to enter one of the large lobbies on the first or second floors. Here the lighting levels are reduced to about 100 to 150 Lux and daylight is restricted by blinds. The move from this to the interior of the gallery is then not too great a jump for the visitors.

Working closely with the Exhibition designers (LD&T) created a very special lighting system for the Sacred Gallery on the second floor. Event Communications had designed a very rich and reverential feel to the sacred gallery. They had used fixed sculptured walls to divide the space into three broad themes: Eastern, Christian and Islamic. Within these walls cases were provided as well as audio-visual centres and graphics to put the exhibits into context.

The ceiling was to be plastered to give a high quality finish. To allow flexibility for the ceiling based services linear service tracks were designed into the ceiling structure. Anywhere along these runs 600 square panels or grills could be provided. The panels could have sprinklers, speakers, smoke detectors or lighting placed on them. Special 600mm square frames were provided for the display lighting, with a single mono-point lighting socket positioned in each corner. When not in use these sockets are virtually invisible. When light is needed on a graphic, seat or exhibit one of a range of the Zumtobel-Staff lights provided could be plugged into the nearest sockets.

In addition, there were three shallow domes created in the ceiling. These domes were lit by 7-watt lamps in small dishes suspended by fine wires below the centre of each. These were specially made by Stable Developments. Additional lighting was provided around each dome by adjustable downlights supplied by iGuzzini.

In both the Secular and Temporary galleries a more flexible exhibition system was developed. Mobile walls were to be used to divide the spaces up into various configurations. Three-circuit ERCO track was co-ordinated with the support track for the wall system to enable lights to be positioned wherever a wall display or case required it. A range of ERCO spot, flood and wall-wash fittings were provided.

The track was divided up into zones relating to the fixed structures within the gallery space. This allows different lighting levels or effects to be achieved in the different areas of the gallery. In general the three circuits of each track zone was set at three different fixed levels. This allowed any one of the fixed levels to be selected for each light via the selector switch on the lights track adapter. When this flexibility is added to the selection of the appropriate lamp beam angle and wattage it allows the correct lux level and appropriate lighting effect to be achieved on each exhibit or graphic item.

In all galleries and the lobbies low-energy fluorescent lighting is provided for use out of hours. The scene-set control system is set-up in all these spaces to provide a ‘visitor’ setting for normal opening hours, a ‘boost’ setting for short duration increases in lighting levels during special visits and an ‘out-of-hours’ setting where all the cases and display lighting is turned off. This not only reduces unnecessary light exposure for the exhibits but also reduces the running costs for the gallery.

Special cases

A range of special cases was designed by Event Communications for use in all of the galleries. These were in families of cases ranging from small desk style cases to full height wall cases. There were 110 cases in all including some very special cases. Two were very narrow to allow close inspection of some beautiful fabrics and another was 2.2m high and 2m wide to display a beautiful dragon robe fully spread out. They were all manufactured and installed by Profile/Mayvaert.

The lighting in all the cases was specified by Lighting Design & Technology to be highly flexible to allow for future changes in display techniques. The upright cases have concealed fluorescent lighting and fibre-optic lighting. The fluorescent lights use high frequency ballasts to avoid any flicker and are dimmable down to around 1%. These are used to provide soft background lighting in most of the cases.

The fibre-optic lighting is provided by adjustable eyeball fittings located in recessed sections at the front edge of the cases. This means that no lights are visible from outside of the case and good angles down onto the objects can be achieved. Each fitting can have a range of lenses or attachments added to tailor each lighting beam to give the correct modelling to each exhibit. The fibre-optic projectors are all dimmable to allow fine-tuning of the lighting levels and the balance between hard and soft light within each case.

The Director of the Chester Beatty Library is Dr Michael Ryan. Tel: +353 1407 0750, Fax: +353 1407 0760.

The project co-ordinator from Event Communication was Joy Ashworth. Tel: 0207 378 9900, Fax: 0207 378 9911.


1. ‘Lighting for conservation’, David Saunders. Museum Practice, No. 6, 1997.

2. ‘Lighting by design’, Paul Ruffles. Museum Practice, No. 6, 1997.

Return to main page > Resources
Please refer to Terms & Conditions when using content of this website.