The Ashmolean Museum installed its electric lighting
in 1895 while the Leeds Art City Gallery, opened in
1888, was the first that has been built specifically to
use it. By the 1900s, electricity had become the fuel of
choice for illuminating interior spaces.
Gas lighting systems had undoubtedly revolutionised
access to museums. However, a report by Thomas
Thorp – incidentally, the co-inventor of the gas
meter – would show that preliminary gas lighting
systems in gallery spaces would provide average
illumination levels of only 0.7 foot-candles, a fraction
of the threshold of human photopic vision. Nor would
early artificial lighting systems come without other
concerns: indoor pollutants of gas effluvia, fire hazards
and high utility costs among them.
In the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art it was
assumed that the fluctuations of temperature and
humidity caused by the gas system would make the
wooden displays warp, allowing combustion products,
soot from gas burning and dust to enter the display
cases. Concerns about the use of gas in museums and
galleries were addressed by a scientific commission
chaired by Michael Faraday himself.
Later, Faraday would also conduct further experiments
in response to the British Museum’s worries. He
concluded that gas lighting was suitable for museums
and galleries but acknowledged the danger of fire and
proposed that gallery roofs be constructed of steel
and not timber. Faraday and the Irish scientist John
Tyndall – whose work 150 years ago first identified the
possibility of the greenhouse effect – also investigated
temperature fluctuations caused by gas lighting but
decided they did not pose a significant risk to artworks.
The degrading effect of light on materials –
watercolours in particular – was identified early on.
Sir Arthur Church had conducted experiments back
in 1856. Sir John Robinson, surveyor of the Queen’s
Pictures, suggested in 1886 that the South Kensington
Museum’s watercolour paintings should only be
exhibited at night and under dim electric lighting
to avoid fading. He accused the South Kensington
Museum of negligence, a position that would trigger
a public debate.
In response to Robinson’s claims, the South Kensington
Museum (although publicly silent) ordered Captain
William de Wiveleslie Abney and Dr WJ Russell
to investigate the action of light on watercolours.
Simultaneously, the Royal Society of Painters asked ▼
Three of seven original gasoliers installed in 1885 at Birmingham
Museum and Art Gallery are in the Industrial Gallery and can still
be viewed ( www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag)