28. Sep 2016

“Our Spectral Vision” in the Natural History Museum in London/GB

Text: Jo-Eike Vormittag

Photos: Jim Stephenson

Isaac Newton’s experiments and studies on light in the 17th century revealed to the world that white light comprises all the colours of the rainbow, proving that so-called polychromatic light – initially interpreted as individual waves of light – is composed of different wavelengths. Using prisms, Newton was able to prove that polychromatic light, daylight for example, could be disassembled into the visible colour spectrum, because the waves of light were refracted differently through the glass, exiting the prism at a different angle. He also demonstrated that different colours projected onto a far wall via the prism could be refracted back together. So much for the theoretical part.


From both a practical and technical point of view, these original studies on light, the spectrum and optical systems clearly remain a fascinating spectacle to this day. Which is exactly why British artist Liz West opted to design the installation entitled “Our Spectral Vision” – inviting visitors to experience first-hand what is meant by the visible spectrum and explore their relationship with colour and our understanding of how we perceive it.

Colour at The Natural History Museum for Nissen Richards. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2016

The installation, which is part of the “Colour and Vision: Through the Eyes of Nature” exhibition in the Natural History Museum in London/UK, toys with all the colours of the rainbow. The artwork comprises seven vertical structures, each containing three linear LED luminaires, and contained to resemble the shape of a prism. The surface facing the wall is mirrored material, the other two surfaces that face into the exhibition space are made of toughened dichroic glass. The dichroic glass is coloured and arranged in the order of the spectrum from right to left. Seven structures with a total of 14 dichroic glass walls means 14 different colours ranging from magenta to blue, green and yellow through to red. The composite non-translucent dichroic material comprises layers of glass and micro-layers of metals or oxides which give the glass shifting colours depending on the lighting conditions and the angle of view. Visitors are invited to move through the space, view the vertical prisms from different sides, and interact with them. The result is a continually changing atmospheric illusion that stimulates the observer’s visual perception.

Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.

Liz West’s work is an interpretation of and inspired by the experiments carried out by Issac Newton. She admits that the choice of colours for her artwork was further inspired by the iridescent patterns and colourings present on the birds, insects and animals in the Natural History Museum collection. She spent some time focussing on the science behind the natural processes of colour researched at the Museum. What at first glance comes across as a high-tech light art installation draws analogies from the natural origins of the world of colours, aligns perfectly with the overall exhibition on colour, and blends in cleverly within the context of nature.

The exhibition closes on 6. November, 2016.


Design: Liz West

Products applied: LED luminaires: LED Linear; Dichroic glass: Prinz Optics


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