Yale University's Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library is home to many significant medical collections, but one in particular stands out—the Cushing Center. Named after 1891 Yale graduate Dr. Harvey Cushing, the father of modern neurosurgery—the exhibit chronicles close to 40 years of Cushing's groundbreaking work studying brain tumors, developing a classification system to document them, and techniques to remove them.

Cushing brought the collection with him in 1934 from the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston to Yale when he became Sterling professor of neurology, and it remained on view in the medical school until 1979, when interest in the collection dissipated. Relegated to the sub-basement of the medical school, the collection developed somewhat of a cult following among students who were initiated into their medical school experience by going to the basement and “communing with the brains.” It was that experience in 1996 that led student Chris Wall to decide to write his dissertation on Cushing and to start the process of finding a permanent home for this historically significant medical collection, which includes 600 preserved brains and tumor specimens, 10,000 glass plates and negatives documenting Cushing's patients, a selection of scientific texts, and Cushing's own writings.

In 2004, New Haven, Conn.–based architect Turner Brooks was hired by the Yale School of Medicine to develop the project. In 2008, permanent space was found in the medical school library to house the collection. Fit into an existing wedge-shaped space, the exhibits are combined with a reading and archive area and a meeting room. Brooks' design wraps the room in finely crafted custom cherry millwork to create a 1,500-square-foot gallery for Cushing's truly unique collection. When Brooks realized that the reading and archive area and the items on display had very different lighting requirements, he solicited the lighting expertise of Atelier Ten, a firm of environmental-design consultants and building-services engineers, to assist in illuminating the space.

Tasked with the assignment, lighting designers for Atelier Ten, Chad Groshart and Meghan Smith-Campbell, assessed the program and determined that three layers of light were needed: general illumination, display lighting, and vitrine lighting. Because the center is located two floors below grade, the designers chose surface-mounted compact fluorescent downlights outfitted with two 13W triple-tube lamps for their ease of installation in the concrete slab ceiling and for their tightly controlled optics. Fluorescent T8 strips with a custom valence supplement these downlights and provide vertical brightness to the wall displays. Neutral density sleeves on the fluorescent tubes filter the UV and help balance the lamp brightness.

Arguably the most thought-provoking parts of the collection are the original leaded-glass specimen jars that contain brain tissue and tumors preserved in formaldehyde. (Cushing gathered specimens from patients who had agreed to donate their organs.) For these, the Atelier Ten team wanted to light the jars in a visually interesting way while adhering to conservation light levels. Mock-ups were used to figure out how to illuminate these sensitive materials and the hand-written labels on the jars, many of which were written by Cushing himself.

Since there was nowhere else to hide the fixture, uplighting the specimens from the front of the shelf area provided the best results. Atelier Ten selected concealed 3200K LED strips for their minimal profile, warm color temperature, and integral aluminium reflector (see right). Waist-high horizontal displays of Cushing's manuscripts, books, and print material were also illuminated with concealed linear 3200K warm-white LED strips. For the vertical glass-front cabinets, an adjustable point-source LED accent luminaire was selected.

Due to the delicate nature of the items on display, Atelier Ten worked closely with the center's curators to limit the number of footcandle-hours illuminating the brain samples over the course of a year. Rather than risk overexposure if a light switch is accidentally left on, the designers utilized occupancy sensors. When a person enters the space, he or she triggers sensors that turn on the general lighting, upper cabinetry, and vertical display lighting. After five minutes, the display lighting automatically turns off. A reset button allows additional five-minute illumination increments if more viewing time is needed. To see the manuscript material in the horizontal vitrines, a push button turns the lighting on to a preset level for a few minutes at a time. When visitors depart, the occupancy sensors return the space to near darkness.

Designing a space to permanently exhibit Cushing's work and medical specimens was not easy. Gauging the “visual environment was tricky,” Groshart says. “Striking the right balance and contrast was the biggest hurdle [we had] to overcome.” The architecture and lighting of this new exhibit thoughtfully displays Cushing's life's work on the human brain, and allows visitors to view the contents with admiration and respect for the man—and the patients—who pioneered modern neurosurgery.

Details Project: The Cushing Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.
Client: Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.
Architect: Turner Brooks Architect, New Haven, Conn.
Lighting Designer: Atelier Ten, New Haven, Conn.
Photographers: Christopher Gardner, Deep River, Conn., and Terry Dagradi, New Haven, Conn.
Project Size: 1,521 square feet
Energy code compliance: ASHRAE 90.1-2004
Watts per Square Foot: 0.88 (downlights and undercabinet general lighting); 0.96 (display lighting); 1.84 (total connected load)
Manufacturers: Amerlux (LED accents at vertical cases); Bartco (linear fluorescent valence); Edge Lighting (vitrine LED); and KKDC (linear LED at shelving)

For a behind-the-scenes look at the Cushing Center, visit the Center's website for video link.

This slim, linear-anodized aluminium extrusion can be used for both interior and exterior applications where space is a challenge. The extrusion serves as a complementary housing for the manufacturer's linear LED array options (KK503, KKRGB501, and KK351). Custom lengths and choice of finish (silver, black, or custom) are available. Atelier Ten selected the fixture for its minimal profile, warm color temperature, and its integral aluminum reflector. kkdc.co.uk