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15 Oct 2020

Light & Dark at Haddo House

Written by James Johnson, Designer
A very large crystal chandlier hangs from an ornate ceiling. It is lit. Its shadow falls onto the decorated wall panels behind, below which are displayed a number of gilt-framed portraits.
Using light to enrich the visitor experience at Haddo House
​In autumn/winter 2019 we put together a new interpretive programme. Experiencing Collections was a series of experimental interventions at six properties (Brodie Castle, Culzean Castle, Gladstone’s Land, Haddo House, Kellie Castle and Pollok House), devised and produced by six different creative practitioners working in collaboration with our operational teams, curators and conservators.

Last year, designer James Johnson worked with the team at Haddo House to enliven spaces through the use of light and dark. Using new technologies, we were able to change the atmosphere of the house, giving an indication of how the rooms would have appeared at different times of the day and in different periods.

Guides took visitors on a revised tour route following the progression of the sun throughout the day, starting with natural light in the morning room and progressing to dark candle- or oil-lamp-lit bedrooms. Contrasting light and dark spaces was also vital; for example, the sumptuous opulence of the sparkling chandelier felt very different to the functional, drab lighting in the servants’ stairwells.

Function, stories and space

We thought carefully about what each space was designed or used for, and what story we wanted to tell. Many of the Trust’s rooms at our historical places are no longer used for their designed purpose, and so the lighting has also been adapted.

Visitors were guided around the house on a route that followed the progression of sun around the building. The tour began in the brighter rooms, such as the morning room, and then progressed to rooms that would have been lit after dark, such as the dining room and the bedrooms.

If the room was used during the day, we decided to reinforce that connection with the outside and sunlight. To increase the feeling of light, we placed glass objects, vases with flowers or mirrors close to the window.

In the bedroom, we took the simple step of closing the curtains! By reducing the amount of light and only switching on bedside lights, the room took on a completely different feel.

Again, in the dining room, we closed the curtains since this was a room that was predominately used in the evening. The space became darker and more intimate. Silverware and glassware came alive and sparkled when we introduced bright flickering imitation candles, to recreate the sense of a dark candle-lit dining room.

A large dining room with a long oval table, set for dinner. The room is dark, lit by candles on the table and lamps on the sideboards.
The atmospherically lit Dining Room

Focus, animation and contrast

Modern electric light sources have been designed to produce a very stable, even light, but the effect produced is very different to the light that would have been produced by candles, fires, oil and gas lamps. Light would have been far more dynamic with moving flames, and the areas of darkness and light throughout a room would have been varied.

We tried to recreate the feel of the fireplace with a fire-effect lamp, positioned in the grate with reflective foil beneath to increase the light output. We then added ceramic fake coals over the lamps to disguise them and create a realistic visual effect.

Another method to bring a room alive is to highlight specific collection objects or areas. We used visually discreet LED micro spotlights to pick out individual objects and paintings. These micro spots are portable, so they could be easily repositioned to illuminate new objects that a curator may want to highlight.

Intensity and colour temperature

The intensity and in particular the colour temperature of light can also give an indication of the historical period of the lighting and the function of the room.

Colour temperature of light sources is measured in Kelvins, with around 3,000 Kelvin being a warm light (similar to an incandescent lamp) and around 6,000 Kelvin being a cool cold light (similar to bright daylight). Over time, lamps or light bulbs are often replaced with mismatching colour temperature lamps or inappropriately cool white light. A warmer white (low Kelvin) light will make a space feel more cosy and inviting; a cool white (higher Kelvin) light will make a space feel more functional, fresh but colder.

Earlier lighting, such as candles, oil lighting and tungsten filament lighting, are all warmer light around the region of 2,000–2,500 Kelvin. These light levels would have made interiors far darker than we expect today, but the colour temperature would have made them feel far warmer. To re-create the effect of early gas lighting or flame, we used flame-effect LED light bulbs in the chandeliers.

Lighting technologies to replicate candles and flame are fast developing and the quality of the effects are getting better, so we’ll keep looking out for new options as they appear.

A single, lit oil lamp stands on a bedside table, casting a warm orange glow on the stripy wallpaper behind.
Warm light emanates from the oil lamp.

The idea behind the Experiencing Collections project was to develop, produce and, importantly, to test new techniques and interventions that could inspire and engage our visitors.

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