Illuminating the collections: gas lighting and the museum

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The age of gas light

Gas lighting was one of the most decisive commodities both in Scotland and the world throughout the 19th century. It affected domestic life and work, but also public spaces: from streets to stations, churches to schools and hospitals to museums, gas lighting could be found almost everywhere.

Gas light
The unmistakeable glow of a gas light.

Gas light in the museum

The introduction of gas light to the museum was not straightforward. Although visitors enjoyed the extended opening hours it allowed, there was concern about heat and open flames and potential damage to the objects on display. There were practical challenges as well – how does one light several thousand burners in one go?

Lighting in the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art c.1890.
Lighting in the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art c.1890.

Gas making in our collections

National Museums Scotland holds one of the UK’s most significant collections of gas appliances and spares. These help us to understand how illuminated spaces were controlled and how the various accessories affected visitors’ perception. They also allow us to explore historic technical and social practices surrounding the objects in our collections.

Gas meter
Gas meter, with green painted metal casing and four circular gauges, made by Alder and Mackay, Edinburgh & Bradford. On display in the Energise gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

Perception of gas light

How did the public respond to the changes of lighting in the museum, from day light to gas light and to electric light? Were gas impurities noticeable? Did gaslight flicker? How did the flames’ reddish colour affect the perception of museum artefacts? How can we understand how the public perceived and responded to gas-lit artefacts in the museum? These are only some of the questions we explore.

Exploring textiles by gas light, part of the ReCREATE project.
Exploring textiles by gas light, part of the ReCREATE project.

Illuminating our collections

More work needs to been done to research the surviving collections related to gas lighting, to highlight the debates that surround them and discover how these can be revitalised to answer current research practices and to inform contemporary museum audiences. This is why we at National Museums Scotland research the impact of gas lighting through our collections.

Find out more

In cooperation with Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.

Header image: The 21st century museum lit up at night.

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