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Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

An interview with Stefano Karadjov, Director of the Brescia Museums Foundation, and Francesca Morandini, curator of the archaeological collections at Brescia Civic Museums

Published: 12 5月 2021
In a few years’ time, the city of Brescia will celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the discovery of one of its symbols: the Winged Victory. It is a celebration that the city’s Archaeological Park will certainly be ready for. The bronze statue from the Roman era was unearthed in 1826 during an excavation in the Park and was restored between 2018 and 2020 by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. For some months, now, it has also been the centrepiece of a new exhibition in the East Room of the Capitolium (or Capitoline Temple).
Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

The Winged Victory statue (Brescia Museums photographic archive; Fotostudio Rapuzzi)

While we are waiting for this space to be reopened, the website dedicated to the statue describes the visitor’s experience: “Visitors enter the room from the side and see the statue in a raised position from a diagonal viewpoint. So, Victory dominates us with her glance, and it feels like she is looking at us”. The Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg, who curated the exhibition that is lit by iGuzzini, commented, “symmetry is broken by placing Victory at a diagonal. We have also added the individual element of the moon-lamp conceived as a poetic object rather than a technological one, and the bronze frames [that were found with the statue, ed.] are also exhibited in a composition that is both abstract and monumental.”

This new exhibition layout is also an opportunity for looking at the ways light can help enhance archaeology, which is why we interviewed the Director of the Brescia Museums Foundation, Stefano Karadjov, and Francesca Morandini, curator of the archaeological collections in the Civic Museums in Brescia, who were kind enough to enlighten us with their views.

MORANDINI – Light plays many roles, as “archaeology” includes numerous things: from open air monuments in archaeological areas, to exhibits and works inside museum halls. And even in the same museum exhibition, light can be used in different ways to highlight various details of the same archaeological exhibit. For example, a work that is on permanent exhibition in a museum will probably need to be illuminated together with other similar items and therefore, for reasons of sustainability and readability, a more “neutral” lighting method is chosen. If, on the other hand, we want to highlight a work in a temporary exhibition, then the light will have a different role, as it will help to tell a different story.
Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

The Roman houses included in the museum (Brescia Museums photographic archive; Fotostudio Rapuzzi)

Another important and extremely delicate aspect is conservation. For example, inside this museum there is an archaeological area with two Roman houses that rest on their original earth base at the ground levels where they were found. The lights we had to use to illuminate them, therefore, had to be fitted with special filters that would halt the growth of vegetation. The light we use to illuminate the exhibit, therefore, also helps to conserve it.

There are also special lights that allow us to read marks that would otherwise be invisible. A few years ago, we conducted an experiment with Sincrotrone from Trieste. This involved marking certain precious exhibits with a special ink that can only be read by a special experimental light created by Sincrotrone from Trieste. These codes, for example, allow us to stop items being counterfeited, without spoiling their readability, which would be the case if we used normal inks.
Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

On the left, the light that illuminates the space in the Capitolium (Brescia Museums photographic archive; Alessandra Chemollo)

KARADJOV – I would also add the narrative role of light to its scientific use. Considering the trends in the exhibition design system, I believe that we are beginning to conceive and contemplate cultural locations in a completely new way that does not separate the observation of an archaeological exhibit from its role as part of a show. In terms of the scenic dimension of an exhibition, light plays a key role and helps define times and methods of use.

In the case of the Hall of the Capitolium that houses the architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg’s installation, we have created a vision experience through three scenarios, that are presented to the public with different aims. The first, which is mainly archaeological, seeks to create an extremely even lighting condition that enhances the exhibits and the exhibition layout. The second is more dramatic, as it creates an “atmospheric” experience that is closer to Baldeweg’s vision thanks to a cold light and the presence of shadows to enhance the dramatic effect, especially at sunset. Even if the statue is located indoors, this scenario seeks to evoke its original open-air setting. Last of all, there is the night scenario where only the statue is illuminated, and on the wall beside it, a light circle about a metre in diameter is created that acts as the “ghost” of the shield which the sculpture originally held and on which was engraved the name of the city of Brixia. The shield has never been found and so the exhibition creates it with light. The circle is, in fact, always visible, but it is much clearer in the night scenario.
The observation of an archaeological exhibit from its role as part of a show. In terms of the scenic dimension of an exhibition, light plays a key role and helps define times and methods of use.
Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

On the right, the “ghost” of the shield (Brescia Museums photographic archive; Alessandra Chemollo)

If this spectacular approach is a new trend, does it not also run the risk of going out of fashion and therefore shortening the life of the display?

K – I think this happens regardless of the lighting. Because, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is obsolescence as it depends on the observer’s cultural baggage and their experience of other cultural sites, other archaeological areas, the media and pervasive technology in general. Light does not render more obsolete an experience that is already obsolete. We must create more and more displays that satisfy the aesthetic tenets and experience-based expectations of the visitor. We must be ready for change and also be aware that, for example, the three Winged Victory scenarios will have to accompany in the future a mood we cannot foresee now. The same thing happened with the plexiglass panels that used to be placed by exhibits in the 1970s and ‘80s but now look completely out of date as our perception has evolved. These panels are still valid, but museums have had to change their modes of expression, nevertheless. The same is true of light, because it may be immaterial, but it still plays a huge role in our perception.

M – Every exhibition reflects the style of the moment, because we are all permeated by a collective vision. At the same time, though, we are always on the lookout for elements that will outlast passing fashions. Today, we can present the Winged Victory in three scenarios, but the system offers over a hundred more. So, we can be calm and confident that the system will continue to be valid over time and when tastes change, we will be able to follow them thanks to what we have installed.
Spectacular antiquities: illuminating archaeology

In the background, the bronze frames that were found along with the statue in 1826 (Brescia Museums photographic archive; Alessandra Chemollo)

Archaeological museums display exhibits made from very different materials: does this variety make finding the right lighting difficult?

M – When you imagine a sequence of works in a museum, the sequence depends on a rationale or narrative rather than on the homogeneity of the materials. So, yes, the problem does exist. Sometimes, in the same room, you need to light bronze, clay and glass objects that all have completely different needs. To go back to the winged victory, metal is one of the most difficult materials to light as it gleams and therefore annihilates everything around it Real balance is required. Here, we conducted numerous onsite tests on both colour temperature and intensity to create highlights while also ensuring the total readability of the work. In the Winged Victory exhibition room, I find that even if the contrast between the statue and the opacity of the brick walls vibrates somewhat, it nevertheless succeeds in emphasizing both materials.

K – The end result of the light in the room depends mainly on the skill of the iGuzzini technicians in predicting that the restored version of the bronze would have had a greater light absorption value than before, and this has allowed the architect’s decision to be recalibrated by encouraging him to accept certain contributions in terms of luminaires that when put to the test have created a perfect experience.