Sunday, October 22, 2006

Light damage

One of the first things you learn about in the care of historic houses and their contents is the damage that light causes to fabrics, paintings and furnishings.

Light – any form of light – causes deterioration. UV filters are fitted wherever possible, sunblinds are put to great use, and electric lights are only put on when absolutely necessary.

So, why why why can’t I get my volunteers to leave the lights off?

I’ll grant you the house can appear a tad on the dark side when you first come in, as the windows are small and not particularly numerous. But that’s medieval fashion for you. Still, once you’ve been inside for a bit and let your eyes adjust, you can see perfectly well. I’m here all day every day and have never blundered around blindly, knocking into things and plummeting down the stairs. It is not that dark. You can see perfectly well by natural light.

The volunteers, though, come in and immediately start flicking the light switches on, even on the sunniest summer days. (Is this something common to all older people, I wonder? My parents, for example, always like the "Big Light" on. I prefer subtle mood lighting, a couple of lamps maybe, for a softer effect, but they like a central ceiling light with a bulb so bright you can still see the room through your closed eyelids.) “Ooh, it’s a bit dark in here” they say.

Patiently, I explain that it seems like that, at first, due to the contrast between the brightness outside and the dimmer, cooler recesses of the house, but that in a few minutes they’ll be fine. I try to turn their perceived negative into a positive.

“It’s the authentic medieval experience” I smile. “This is exactly what it would have been like when it was first built. No electric lights, and candles were expensive, so you wouldn’t have lit those in the day time”.

They are unconvinced. “But people can’t see the Precious Things properly”.

I know what they want me to do. They want me to find an enormous spotlight and shine it on our very interesting and historic map. “Ah, yes,” I say, patience personified, “but the map is very delicate. If I put a light on it some of us will be able to see it really well for a little while, but, eventually, it will fade and then no one will be able to see it at all, ever again.”

They nod, thoughtfully. I return to the office, pleased with my informative and educational bit of volunteer management there.

When I come back through some time later all the lights are on. I can feel tiny hairs on my skin crisping in the heat from the 100 watt bulbs.

“It was dark” they say, by way of explanation.

A weird kind of strategy game has since ensued over the following weeks.

I took all the lightbulbs out of the light fittings.

They found them and put them back in while I was out.

I taped down all the lightswitches until the bulbs cooled enough for me to remove them again. This time I hid them in a special, secret place.

Lamps appeared, dotted around the building.

I hid all the lamps.

It's their turn next. I await their move with interest.

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