Weston Park Museum
Return to main page > Resources

Guide to Showcase Lighting

Why do you need to light a glass case?

When a glass case sits in a room lit only with general diffuse lighting the amount of light entering the case is reduced by the glass itself. Similarly light from the objects is again reduced as it passes out through the glass. This is why unlit objects in cases appear dull when compared to the rest of the room.

Objective of any case lighting

  • To provide light for the visitors to see and appreciate the objects and their setting and any associated labels
  • To provide light that shows the exhibits at their best whilst not harming them
  • To meet cost and energy requirements
  • To provide a lighting system that can be understood, adjusted and maintained by the staff

This last point is one that is the most often overlooked by designers but can be the most important for the long-term preservation and display of exhibits. Often a lighting scheme looks wonderful in the first year of its life but starts to decay and look ragged because the staff cannot understand how to look after it or how to control it. There is no point spending money on a scheme that cannot be preserved. Staff use must be designed in and necessary training should be part of any installation contract.

How can the objects be lit?

The objects in a case can be lit from outside the case, from inside the case or by a combination of both.

Lighting from the outside involves the careful positioning and aiming of spotlights to light the objects in the case without causing reflections on the glass in the direction of the viewers or throwing shadows of the case edges. It is worth remembering that even glass to glass corners will throw a shadow into the case. By far the most difficult problem for cases with flat or sloping glass tops is to avoid reflections on the glass in the direction of the viewer. Generally if lights can be directed from either side of the principle viewing direction then the reflections occur to the side of the case as it is viewed. In extreme cases polarising filters can be used on the light sources to reduce the intensity of the reflections.

Internal lighting

By placing the lighting within the case the problem of reflection on the glass is removed. However, the problem of access for maintenance and re-lamping and the possible introduction of heat into the glass are introduced.

The classic failure of top lit cases is where there are a number of glass shelves in the case with the objects on the top shelf over-lit and those on the shelves below rapidly fading into darkness cased by the shadowing of the objects on the shelves above. Some punchy directional downlights can be added to the light box at the top to push light down between the top objects to those on the lower shelves, but inevitably almost all the light on the lower objects comes from directly above them – hardly the most flattering direction for most object types.

Design approach

The lighting of objects in a case should be thought of in a similar way to lighting larger objects in a room setting. By providing soft general light plus directional light on the objects features can be highlighted without undue shadowing. It is usually a mistake to accept just the standard lighting solution of case manufacturers. This often consists of purely soft downlight from fluorescent lights above the case. Whilst top lighting can be appropriate for some objects, many benefit from some side lighting to emphasise the modelling or texture. Always describe to showcase suppliers the types of objects going into each case and if they propose identical lighting solutions for all the cases then ask them to describe to you how the lighting is bringing out the best in each type of object.

Purpose-designed lighting for cases need not be expensive if considered at the time the cases are being designed. If the case structure is created in tandem with the lighting, an economic and flexible solution can be arrived at. This often involves fibre-optic lighting which is much cheaper now than just a few years ago. This can be used on its own or combined with fluorescent lights providing some soft general light.

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