Q: We want to install a cabinet of glass shelving in our living room in order to display a collection of ceramic objects. The space that the shelves will occupy is about 4 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 1 foot deep. What do you suggest would be the best way to light this?
A: My starting suggestion is that you reconsider the use of glass shelving. In my experience, shelving of this sort is best suited for displaying translucent objects. Ceramics and similar materials are shown off to best advantage when they are placed on wooden or metal shelves.
I recommend this alternative mainly because it will allow you to install incandescent mini-strips that can be easily concealed. Besides being discreet, the incandescent lights can be dimmed or intensified in accordance with the effect you wish to achieve. This option may also be the only practical choice. In a case as large as the one you're proposing to install, the only way of lighting the objects would be from the inside top. But even with glass shelves, the pieces on the upper levels would still obscure those below due to the shadows cast downward.
Internal lighting from the side, although it's commonly used, wouldn't be effective in your situation because of the cabinet's width. In addition, a lighting array of this type would divert attention from the collection itself.
The approach I'm proposing is illustrated in a most attractive manner in a new book by Randall Whitehead titled "Residential Lighting: Creating Dynamic Living Spaces." This photo is taken from that lucidly written and very useful work.
In this example, lighting designer Donald Maxcy allowed a collection of objects to assume its natural role as the room's focal point. The objects are properly lighted by well-concealed incandescent mini-strips as well as by recessed fixtures installed in the ceiling. Some of these adjustable ceiling sources focus narrow beams on specific items in the collection; others light up larger objects elsewhere in the room.