Feature, Hospitality/Leisure

Q & A with Simm Steel: ‘Lighting can make or break an exhibition’

LED and controls have been vital to the look and feel of the exhibitions in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but Simm Steel also hopes to re-introduce natural light into the grand courts of the gallery.

Simm Steel is a lighting consultant and senior lighting technician at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Tell us a bit about your role

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is a public sector museum devoted to a broad range of exhibitions of the highest calibre. As senior lighting technician and lighting designer I work closely with curators, exhibition designers and artists to interpret concepts and artistic intent, deliver lighting design solutions and supervise all electrical lighting and equipment maintenance. I trial and specify new technologies, review all lighting consultant proposals for new gallery constructions and refurbishments, and ensure they are delivered to the highest possible standard.


How important is lighting for the overall success of an exhibition?

Lighting can make or break an exhibition. The interpretation of curatorial intent and integration into the lighting design can make an ordinary exhibition extraordinary. Controls are also enormously important; exhibitions can have extremely complex design configurations requiring varied lux zones and multiple lux requirements within each zone for objects of varying light sensitivity.


What is the biggest challenge of lighting an exhibition?

Long-term projects always present challenges and the rapid changes we are experiencing in the lighting industry require constant attention. Knowing that the technology you have specified is about to be upgraded tomorrow requires an understanding of acceptable compromise.


What potential is there for new technology to improve exhibitions?

My recent travels to research daylighting and new technologies in the international museum sector has proven incredibly thought provoking. New and emergent technologies and innovative use of materials and control systems will enable far more complex lighting design responses and superior quality light.

Technology upgrades staged over the next few years will also greatly reduce the AGNSW carbon footprint, and reduce the damaging effects of both natural and artificial light.


What have you done with lighting that you are particularly proud of?

Successfully delivering a good result is, of course, immensely satisfying but bringing tertiary students from non-lighting practices into the museum for talks about lighting gives what I do a far broader meaning.


Have you had much experience using LED technology?

Our first upgrade to LED technology was nearly three years ago and we suspected it might be fraught with problems. We understood the colour quality was below our standards but the attraction of energy saving and the opportunity to move away from the muddiness of incandescent sources to crisper ‘whites’ could not be ignored. We resolved colour quality issues with a minor contribution of 50W halogen spotlights – of course this is no longer necessary. Trailing edge dimming compatibility has been largely resolved by re-writing dimmer firmware but we have since adopted Dali control systems for all future projects.


What future plans do you have for the lighting at the Art Gallery?

We’re looking into further lighting upgrades throughout the museum and the re-introduction of natural light into our Grand Courts as budgets allow. I’m hoping research into the innovative use of materials will result in new ways to lower intensities and shift wavelength distributions towards less energetic and damaging CCTs to enhance colour quality, modeling and texture.


What do you look for in a lighting supplier?

I respect suppliers who know their product technology beyond the knowledge required for a sales pitch and who show some understanding of the standards required for museum applications. I look for luminaires of high colour quality (95+ CRI/CQS/MCRI), excellent distribution (wall-washers are my benchmark), low chromatic aberration, high efficiency, colour uniformity (2 MacAdams ellipse maintained), longevity, and design elegance that prioritises aesthetic suitability over product image.


What could manufacturers do better to help you?

Lighting manufacturers should stop pushing the R9 to the detriment of other wavelengths just to achieve higher CRI ratings at 3000K – a CCT that is based on a redundant reference illuminant. I’d like to see spectral power distribution charts and CQS information available as standard. 

I’d also like to see innovative responses to new technologies – why manufacturers continue to force the old reflector concepts upon lambertian sources and/or bolt pre-manufactured LED modules into old product families that then require bulky heat management never ceases to confound me. And if you ask for product comment, please don’t then return with a new version having ignored the criticisms.