Lighting the Ruhr

Exploring the use of artificial light and light-based technologies at industrial heritage sites in the Ruhr region

Kurze Projektbeschreibung auf Deutsch

‘Lighting the Ruhr’ explores the use of artificial light and light-based technologies at industrial heritage sites in the Ruhr region of Germany. Led by Hilary Orange, the project is based at the Institute for Social Movements, Ruhr Universität Bochum and is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Once the heartland of Germany’s steel and coal industries, the Ruhr region played a key role in the nation’s post-war Wirtschaftwunder (‘economic miracle’). Since deindustrialisation (1980s -1990s) industrial heritage has become central to the Ruhr’s cultural, economic, social and spatial restructuring and artificial light has been implemented to present and promote sites. Ironworks are floodlit at night for nocturnal tourism, landmark industrial structures are illuminated and light art has been installed on mine heaps as a memorial to the region’s industrial history.


Miner’s Lamp light-art installation, Moers.Photo, kaʁstn Disk/Cat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons

Supposing that artificial lighting technology has made a significant contribution to the development of industrial heritage in the region, the central aim of the ‘Lighting the Ruhr’ project is to consider how lighting and lighting technologies have been used to create, transform and communicate industrial heritage in the Ruhr region. To do this, the project is structured around the following four themes:

  • Layering of light: to consider innovation and redundancy by examining the sequence and layering of lighting technologies at industrial heritage sites in the industrial and post-industrial eras.
  • Intention and effect: to examine the different aims and effects of different lighting strategies during the lifetime of the heritage site. This includes the use of lighting to create, for example, historic understanding, security, mood, or visual cue, the lighting of buildings as a collective space or as independent objects; and the aspects of the site that are left in darkness and shadow.
  • Ruhrgebiet culture: to explore the wider cultural context of light festivals, industrial heritage events and the use of light-based technologies within light-art installations that commemorate the region’s industrial past.
  • Diurnal and nocturnal fieldwork: to critically reflect on the practice of conducting diurnal and nocturnal fieldwork in order to document and observe different lighting strategies and effects throughout the day/time of the year.

In 2017-18 multi-sited fieldwork comprising site surveys, interviews and participant observation will be carried out at a sample of sites in the Ruhr region. These sites (to be announced) have been selected to target different types of industrial heritage including architectural highlights, industrial parks, light-art installations and a World Heritage Site. Archival research is also an important aspect of this project, a number of archives in the Ruhr contain relevant material including site plans, architectural drawings, photographs and film footage.

Hansa Coking Plant, Dortmund

Hansa Coking Plant, Dortmund, Winter 2014, 17.28pm. Photo by Hilary Orange.

This is a cross-disciplinary project situated within the fields of industrial archaeology, heritage studies, light studies, and the history of technology. Light studies constitute a cross-disciplinary research area that encompasses, for example, architecture (where light is considered as a building material [Bille and Sørensen 2007, p. 270]), history (where light is commonly presented as a symbol of urban modernity), urban studies and planning (with cognate lighting strategies and lighting masterplans of cities), geography (analysing the effect and significance of light), and art (through light art and installations).

To contribute, it is hoped, to such existing cross-disciplinary dialogue ‘Lighting the Ruhr’ sets out to assess the value of an archaeological approach to the study of light, one that considers the material traces of lighting technologies and infrastructure and, importantly, the way that light has a transformative action on material. This notion follows Mikkel Bille and Tim Sørensen’s contention that lighting is both social and material: it is a social practice that illuminates places, people and things in culturally specific ways and it manipulates material by creating place identity and cultural heritage (2007). An archaeological gaze can also assist in the documentation of stratigraphic histories of lighting on sites. Recently, Dietrich Henckel and Timothy Moss advocated for a more refined and contextual history of lighting, one that moves toward the multiple histories of layered lighting systems (2014, p. 301-2). Furthermore, this project seeks to moderate the daycentrism of archaeological practice through both diurnal and nocturnal fieldwork, thereby capturing light at different times of the day and night. As Tim Edensor has pointed out “academic writing has largely focused upon the cityscape by day” (2013, p. 423) despite that different shades of light, including darkness and gloom, create the urban environment and the urban experience. Edensor suggests that a more sensitive approach to light and darkness is needed; one that “recognises the ways in which the power of each condition draws upon the relationalities and innumerable intersections of dark and light” (2013, p. 423).

In summary, the widespread and strategic use of light in the Ruhr represents a distinctive historically and culturally bound practice. ‘Lighting the Ruhr’ will provide an in-depth examination of lighting history and technology at industrial heritage sites in Germany and will, it is hoped, highlight the importance of artificial light in urban life and within industrial heritage practice. The significance of light in our everyday lives was raised in the 2015 International Year of Light with the prediction that the “21st century will depend as much on photonics as the 20th century depended on electronics” (IYL2015).

Updates on work at selected sites and archival research will be posted on this blog in due course.


Bille, Mikkel and Sørensen, Tim Flor, 2007, An Anthropology of Luminosity: The Agency of Light, in  Journal of Material Culture, Vol 12, Issue 3, pp. 263 – 284

Edensor, Tim, 2013, ‘The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark’, in Urban Studies, Vol 52, Issue 3, pp. 422 – 438

Henckel, Dietrich  and Moss, Timothy, 2014, ‘Towards a Brighter Future? Conclusions for Lighting Research and Policy’, in Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenhörl, Katharina Krause, and Merle Pottharst (eds) Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society,  New York: Routledge.

IYL2015, 2015, What is Photonics?

Related posts

Night-time Factory Tourism in Japan‘, May 16 2016

An archaeological light age: On modernity, urbanism and the materiality of light-based technologies’, January 14 2016


3 thoughts on “Lighting the Ruhr

  1. Hi Hilary,
    I would like to report this project in the TICCIH Bulletin, newsletter of the international association for industrial archaeology.
    If you agree I can summarise the project from your post, or you could send me c. 500 words which we can publish in the next issue – unfortunately my deadline is pretty close, so let me know when you can.


    1. Hi James, please do go ahead and summarise the text. Thanks for asking / offering. I’m in transit right now (at Dresden airport) but I’ll be home later on today if you have any queries. Hilary


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