Weston Park Museum
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The Lighting of the Pump House: Peoples History Museum, Manchester.

The text below is that used for the paper presented and published in the pre-prints for the CIBSE National Lighting Conference 1996.

This paper describes the design and implementation of the exhibition lighting to the permanent exhibition galleries of this museum. The building was an old hydraulic pumping station with a very robust structure that resulted in a limited headroom for the lighting equipment within the exhibition space. It was necessary to modify the lighting infrastructure of the building to tailor the lighting to individual exhibits or tableaux as they were designed by the exhibition designer.


This recently completed museum is located in an old hydraulic pumping station situated next to the river Irwell in Manchester. It dates from 1909 and housed two steam engines which drove the hydraulic power supply for the city which was operated by Manchester Corporation. The building itself is steel framed with decorative brick outer walls.

The industrial feel of the space and its own history make the building an ideal home for the National Museum of Labour History’s unique collection of exhibits on the history of work, organised labour and the union movement. The building consists of a huge glazed entrance hall where the shop, cafe and entrance facilities are housed, with office accommodation to one side. Beyond this, two levels of permanent galleries are housed in the old boiler house with two levels of smaller temporary galleries above, hosed in the old coal store. This paper covers only the work of the exhibition and lighting designer on the permanent galleries.

The building’s design commenced long before the exhibitions had been designed or laid out. This meant that the building’s Architects, OMI, and consultants, Buro Happold, could provide only a basic lighting system of dimmer controlled track with adjustable spot lights which could be adapted to suit the final exhibition layout. As the building work progressed the exhibition designer, Nigel Simpkins, and museum staff started to lay out the extensive collection. The exhibition designer and Lighting Design & Technology were then able to adapt the lighting system to the specific needs of the exhibits.

The building designers had provided a long transition space to bring visitors from the bright daylit entrance hall through to the 50 to 100 lux artificially lit permanent galleries. In the transition space the visitors were encouraged to linger whilst reading introductory material which was lit to levels that reduced as they proceeded towards the galleries. This area is lit by recessed adjustable ELV downlights with wattage and beam angles chosen to provide the necessary coverage and illumination to the information boards.

Upper mezzanine

The visitors leave the transition space and enter the gallery on a mezzanine level. This mezzanine fills the centre part of the gallery leaving a double height space around three sides. The wall space of this double height area is used to hang large union and protest banners, some up to 4m high. The permanent gallery has no daylight and is artificially lit by ERCO track and spot lights. Ideally the track would have been higher but it had to be located below the existing large structural steel beams that supported the original coal store above. The track is laid out in a large horse shoe in front of the three banner walls with two additional straight runs across the main mezzanine space.

The first change made to the basic lighting system provided was to reorder the track circuits to provide better control for the gallery staff. Each group of tracks had been supplied with three dimmed circuits. This was reorganised to provide two dimmed circuits per track run and a common switched circuit for house lighting. This house lighting was to consist of low-energy fluorescent floods which lit the floor areas of the gallery outside public opening hours. This had the advantage of not only lowering the light exposure on the exhibits but also providing lower cost lighting for the general cleaning and maintenance periods.

The lighting of the exhibits was provided by ERCO Osiris tungsten-halogen spot lights with integral transformers. To maximise the potential of the relatively few spot lights available they were located where possible pointing away from the general direction of visitor flow through the mezzanine. As it is always important to provide some back lighting or rim lighting to make objects stand out from their background, there had to be some lights pointing towards the visitors. Here glare shield rings and/or honeycomb louvres were used to baffle the light.

The lighting levels required for the sensitive exhibits such as costumes, fabric or original documents was 50 Lux. To avoid these exhibits looking dull the lighting level on other less sensitive exhibits was limited to 100 Lux. This also avoided any problems in changes in adaptation for viewers moving through the exhibition space and gave a consistency to the displays. These lighting levels were provided by a combination of lamp wattage selection, beam angle selection and dimmer circuit selection. The ERCO fittings were available in spot and flood versions. The appropriate type was selected for each area of the exhibits and was combined with the appropriate wattage lamps to give near to the required illumination. Then one of the two dimmed circuits was selected in the track that the spot light was mounted on. These had been set at two different levels; the upper one set slightly down from full-on so as to increase lamp life, and the second one some 10% lower again.

This arrangement of using the dimmers only for final trimming of the lighting levels, which had been mainly determined by the correct selection of lamp wattage and beam angle, avoids the often seen problem of standard 50 Watt, medium beam spot lights being very under-run with the attendant dull orange output.

Lower level

Under the mezzanine the problems with low track height became worse: the headroom varying between 2.2m and 2.5m. Here it was decided to effectively abandon the three runs of track provided for the exhibition lighting as it was too widely spaced to be effective. The dimmer circuits allocated to the track were reused to supply a number of connection points above the accessible false ceiling. The track was then used mainly to support some of the house lighting. The remainder of the house lighting was provided by recessed low energy downlights.

As the displays below the mezzanine consisted of a number of set tableaux, such as the interior of a metal work shop or a living room, the exhibit lighting was tailored for each display. To do this recessed adjustable tungsten-halogen lights by Megalit were specified. Again due to the very low mounting height these were all carefully located to point away from the direction of flow of the visitors. Those that are used for back or feature lighting are aimed more downwards. These are wired in star formation to transformers located in pairs above the ceilings. Each transformer is connected to one of two dimmed circuits covering each group of exhibits. The star arrangement, where between three and five lights are connected to each transformer, was chosen over the use of one transformer per light on purely cost grounds.

Throughout the exhibition, graphic information panels were provided which gave interpretative information for the visitors. These were very unusual in that as well as including the descriptive text and reproductions of prints and photographs, they also contained small perspex boxes with small but important objects related to that particular section, such as samples of cotton and bobbins in the cotton display. These boxes needed to be lit internally in a way that was economic, met conservation limits and lit the exhibits well. The solution was to provide one or two purpose built miniature reflectors modules by Stable Developments containing 3 Watt, glass, tungsten-halogen lamps in each box. These lamps provided minimal UV, little heat and met the general 50 Lux limit for light exposure.

Sceneset controls

The Electrosonic dimmer system was provided with two sceneset control units, although at the time of starting the exhibition design they had not been located by the building’s consultants. After discussion with the client these were located inside the door from the transition space onto the mezzanine and near to the exit from the lower floor. These positions provided staff entering or leaving the gallery the ability to turn the lights on for access or to change the set scenes. These control units are also the point where the dimming system programmer is plugged in and so needed to be in a position where the whole of that floor is visible from the control position. Each unit was programmed with three scenes and off. These were ‘normal’, giving normal exhibition lighting level; ‘boost’, for special visits of short duration and ‘cleaners’, for general access and maintenance.


Overall the lighting of the museum has succeeded in providing atmospheric yet clear lighting of a varied collection of exhibits and displays. These are lit in a way that brings out their characters without risking damage by excessive light exposure. The problems with the low mounting height of most of the lights has been overcome in most cases by careful location and orientation. The dimming system has been reordered to provide simple transition from normal display lighting to economic house lighting.

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