Illuminating Concepts lights the way for customers to explore the new Museum Shop in New York's American Museum of Natural History

Forget your ideas about museum shops as conservative, low-key places to pick up postcards or a T-shirt. New York's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Museum Shop rewrites the book on museum retailing. It radiates energy, visual drama, and dazzling merchandise presentation techniques that beckon visitors to explore, have fun, and, of course, buy.

Located in the Museum's recently completed C.V. Starr Natural Science Building, the 11,000-sq.-ft. (1,022 sq. m) store immerses shoppers in an experiential space. Two balconies overlook the ground level sales floor where scale model dinosaurs prowl between merchandise displays. Six fossil casts of flying pterosaurs show how in eons past they circled menacingly overhead to seek their prey.

Dennis Vogel, IES, of Illuminating Concepts (IC) was the lighting consultant on the planning and design team. "The volumes of the space, merchandise, special architectural features, and finishes defined the parameters for the lighting," Vogel notes. "We also had to consider movable merchandise display pods that require a flexible lighting system to adapt to the placement of the pods," he points out.

Says Robert Renshaw, the Museum Shop's general manager of retail operations, "Our target customers are museum visitors of all ages, neighborhood residents, and gift seekers." Renshaw, a former Macy's executive, led the merchandise re-categorizing process from that of traditional retail classifications to groupings that reflect the character of the vast, venerable Museum itself and the way in which it is organized. "This Museum is a famous, world-class institution; our goal was to create a retail showcase that can expand to meet the changing needs of the Museum's exhibitions and its evolving licensed merchandise selection," he indicates.

For architect Kenneth Nisch of JGA Inc., store planners and designers, the unusual dimensions of the space prompted singular solutions. He describes the space as being "carved out" of the Starr Building. "All three retail levels of the store can be seen from the main entrance," he indicates. "It fits like a puzzle."

Emphasizing the nature theme, and the store's most dominant single feature, is the full-height rock wall made from a cast of part of a gigantic basalt formation in eastern Washington state's Columbia River Gorge. "Its role is to provide a deep textural and environmental background foil for all that is going on all around the store," Nisch relates. He adds that the design was based on experiential but not thematic concepts.

"From the entrances, the store appears as an unfolding vista. The stairway landings become traffic magnets to draw people up and down within the space," says Nisch. Walls on all three levels are painted in light neutral tones. Ceramic floor tiles have a limestone-like textured surface.

Illuminating Concepts custom-designed track heads to accommodate the various lamp sources and create a standard appearance on the main floor, mezzanine, and second floor. "Each level flows into the next so that there is a seamless transition from collection to collection," says Vogel. "The lighting was based on communicating the architectural dynamics of the space while at the same time providing high-impact feature lighting on the merchandise.

"Color temperature for the fluorescent lamps was kept at a consistent 3000K level to blend with the incandescent illumination which is rated at approximately 2700K," Vogel continues. To provide effective illumination for movable merchandise display pods, Illuminating Concepts created custom track heads that are recessed into architectural niches, fitted primarily with 75W AR-111 lamps; interspersed are metal-halide lamps and 70W PAR-38 MasterColor metal-halide lamps. "By recessing the track into ceiling niches, only the head of the fixture is visible, producing a smooth surface appearance," he adds.

An eclectic mix of custom fixture modules, all finished in teak wood and bronze, are non-retail in their appearance, inspired by such Museum artifacts as Korean step shelves or by natural geological ledge formations. Vitrines, nesting tables, and small gondolas are inspired by the Museum's traditional scientific display cabinets. "Display cases have removable and adjustable low-voltage 20W MR-11 lamps, while larger vertical millwork utilizes 17W and 25W T8 fluorescent fixtures," Vogel indicates. Glass shelves are illuminated from underneath.

Here is Vogel's level-by-level lighting tour of the Museum Shop. First floor: children's books, videos, toys, T-shirts, gifts, and apparel. The children's area, with a ceiling height of 7'8" (2.3m) has 40W biax wallwash fluorescent fixtures used in conjunction with MR-16 fixtures for added visual punch. Additional flexibility is provided by adjustable recessed MR-16 lamps. Ceiling coffers incorporate functional and whimsical "bug lights" designed by IC featuring glowing faces of low-voltage 20W MR-16 lamps. Mezzanine: The balcony houses the most comprehensive collection of natural history books and related media in New York. Ceiling heights here are 8' and 8'3" (2.5m). Multi-head lamps that reduce the number of ceiling fixtures have a zero edge fixture for a clean look. All lamps used on this level are MR-16s for an intimate feel and color temperature. Custom shelving provides maximum flexibility for changing presentations. Upper level: A broad selection of merchandise related to human cultures is housed here--world crafts, jewelry, scarves, ties, glassware, "adventure" apparel, music, microscopes, telescopes, and binoculars. Jewelry displays wind though the center of the selling floor.

Ceiling heights here range from just under 8' up to 14'2" (2.4-4.3m). The track head utilizing 50W PAR-30 lamps of the same design as the others in the Museum Shop was installed on this level where the low ceiling height prevented the recessing of the fixtures. A dimming system from Strand Lighting controls illumination on cashwraps, swing areas, and other specific spaces. Future plans call for activating the system's ability to produce special effects to be beamed on the rock wall.

The Museum Shop is located close to the main Museum entrance on Central Park West. A second lower-level entry leads into the Shop from the adjacent new Planetarium. According to the Museum Shop's Renshaw, "The finished result places AMNH, we believe, squarely in the forefront of international museum retailing."

Vilma Barr is a New York-based writer specializing in design and merchandising.

Museum Shop Merchandising Staff Robert Renshaw, general manager of retail operations Paul Muraswski, general merchandising manager

Architect of Record Michael Regan Polshek Partnership Architects

Retail Store Design Ken Nisch, Mike Curtis, Arvin Stephenson JGA, Inc.

Lighting Designer Dennis Vogel, IES Illuminating Concepts

General Contractor Bovis Lend Lease LMB, Inc.

Electrical Contractor JH Electric

Equipment List Illuminating Concepts custom track heads with Osram Sylvania 75W 8-degree AR-111 lamps IC custom track heads with Philips MasterColor CDM70 30-degree PAR-38 lamps IC custom track heads with Ushio 50W 24-degree PAR-30 lamps USA Illumination fully adjustable recessed downlights with Ushio 50W 24-degree MR-16 lamps Indy Lighting recessed wallwash fixtures with Philips PL-L 40W 3000K lamps Indy Lighting recessed adjustable fixtures with Philips MasterColor CDM70 30-degree PAR-38 lamps Indy Lighting custom recessed fixtures with four Ushio 50W 24-degree MR-16 lamps Midwest T8 fluorescent striplights in graphic coves with Osram Sylvania F017/830 17W 3000K lamps Alkco T2 fluorescent striplights in custom wall niches with Osram Sylvania FM11/830 11W 3000K lamps IC/Tech Lighting custom bug lights with Ushio 20W 24-degree MR-16 lamps Indy Lighting recessed adjustable AR-111s with Osram Sylvania 75W 8-degree AR-111 lamps Visa wall sconces with Philips PL-C 18W lamps Bartco T8 fluorescent striplights with Philips F15/BLB 15W blacklight, Osram Sylvania F017/830, and F025/830 17W, 25W 3000K lamps Lutron Grafik Eye Ardron-Mackie surface-mount fluorescent wallwashers for exterior signage with Philips PL-L 40W 3000K lamps

Millwork lighting Ardee miniature spotlights on custom stems with Ushio 20W 17-degree MR-11 lamps Bartco T5 linear fluorescents with Philips F21T5/830, F28T5/830, and F35T5/830 lamps USA Illumination recessed adjustable downlights with Ushio 35W 24-degree MR-16 lamps

Miscellaneous Aromat ballast for custom metal-halide track heads Nordic Aluminum single-circuit recessed track Strand CD80SV half rack 24 module Strand Premiere display stations