Lighting on Display

Since the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in the Spanish city in 1997, crowds of tourists have flocked there. Most say they come to see the museum, hailed as the most important structure of its time. And many stay to shop and eat, generating millions in revenue for the town. Could a museum designed by a top architecture firm bring throngs to any city? City leaders across the United States and the world have pondered that question. Many decided that if it worked for Bilbao, it could work for them, creating “the Bilbao effect.”

Many museums with unique architecture were constructed in the United States as a result of the effect. While not all have been as successful as Bilbao, and some have put cities in the red, the unusual architecture of most, combined with advances and changes in lighting technology, have upped the ante for electrical contractors. Museum lighting became much more complicated.

Electrically lighting a museum space is not an ordinary assignment.

“Museums are complicated,” said Larry French, principal, Auerbach Glasow French, Architectural Lighting Design and Consulting, the lighting designers for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “There are a lot of different spaces and a lot of different uses.”

Museums house galleries, cafes, theaters, research facilities, offices and more. Then, there is the basic function of any museum building to consider.

“The key point that makes museums different from any other lighting situations is the restrictions because of conservation,” said Steven Weintraub, founder and principal, Art Preservation Services Inc., New York.

On one hand, you need lighting to please the visiting public. On the other, you need to preserve exhibited objects and materials that can range from a feather cape to a king’s tea set to a model car. And, to complicate things, the amount of energy used for illumination has become a factor.

“In California, the energy code restricts how much wattage you can use in galleries. Up until a few years ago, museum gallery lighting was exempt,” French said. “It’s beginning to be regulated now. Galleries are typically higher wattage per square foot than office or curatorial spaces, but it depends.”

The bottom line is museum lighting calls for ingenuity from the electrical contractor.

Decker Electric Co. Inc. of San Francisco faced multiple installation challenges on a nine-month design/assist project at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, who is the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum had a challenging construction plan. The 63,000-square-foot structure of the museum was built inside a 90-year-old historic Pacific Gas & Electric substation wall and historic truss system. To say the architecture is unusual would be an understatement. A second-floor gallery space is akin to a box balanced on its corner, with a multisided ceiling 60 feet high in one spot.

Decker Electric worked with LSI Industries Inc. on a design with track lights below and up-lighting above to be placed into a specially designed custom channel. Emergency lighting, dimming and normal lighting had to be run down through the unusually shaped space.

“It took almost a year and a half to design that with LSI,” said Keith Burrows, executive vice president, Decker Electric.

That was only one room, Burrows said.

“Lighting in every single room of the museum was a big challenge because, when you’re in a Daniel Libeskind building, the architecture comes first. How you run the sprinkler pipe, HVAC pipe, electrical pipe, telephone pipe is secondary to the design,” Burrows said. “There wasn’t one straight wall. Every one was slanted, and the lighting had to match the design. The biggest challenge was getting the electrical to the lights. It was hard to transition from a square area to a rectangular area. Once we were into it, it was fine, but to figure out how to get from one crazy area to the next was very time-consuming.”

Since museums have multiple facilities, Decker Electric’s work on the Contemporary Jewish Museum also included detailed installation of 70 types of custom lighting fixtures throughout the exhibit area and conference rooms and in a 200-person theater, restaurant areas, a 4,000-square-foot retail store, loading dock, administration offices and a mechanical room.

“With most of the fixtures, we had to figure out how to install them as we were building,” Burrows said. “Many of the recessed fluorescent lighting had custom sizes, and the location of the installed fixture was not known until the dimensions of the walls were constructed in the field. If we had a fixture that had to be a certain dimension between two points, we had to preorder the fixture, but we didn’t know the exact dimensions between the architectural fixed points. We had meetings with the architect, lighting designer, general contractor and ourselves to layout each and every light fixture. Every room was like that. There was so much coordination.”

Another Decker Electric project, the Walt Disney Family Museum, houses the Walt Disney Family Foundation’s Archives and is located in the Presidio in San Francisco. The lighting designer was Fisher Marantz Stone, New York, with the nonexhibit spaces and the site lighting by Auerbach Glasow French.

It presented challenges related to construction in a historic building—a popular site for museums—and to the display of fragile objects, which is the mission of most museums.

“The original character of the building was being retained, as well as historic architectural features such as transoms, wainscot and chair rails. Any penetration through any floor, any wall, any part of the structure, had to be basically preapproved by Presidio Trust,” said Dan Boas, vice president, Decker Electric. “Every one of the penetration points or exhibit displays on the floor below impacted the schedule. We worked on drawings constantly.”

Then, there were the display items.

“They had one of the original bumper cars from Disneyland, a model of Disneyland as well as other very delicate artifacts, so everything we did was very sensitive,” Boas said. “It was challenging from a coordination standpoint, and focusing the lighting within the displays was very involved. We had to make sure it was coordinated properly so that anything we did didn’t take away from the exhibits. Conduits, lighting, fire alarm systems had to disappear, so the focus was on the exhibits.

“It was challenging to conceal the power supplies and controllers for the display lighting within the exhibits, and we had to preplan along with the millwork manufacturer as to where these power supplies and power feed points were located. Sometimes we’d put it below and create a false cabinet. In other situations, where some of the millwork cabinets were free standing, we would feed them from the floor below. There were other locations where we created an access panel concealed in a wall that matched the wall covering. It was more difficult than usual because of the sensitivity of the structure and exhibits,” Boas said.

Since exhibits can be anything from a painting to a recreation of a historic or natural place, sometimes electrical contractors are part of the team that creates the exhibit. Dynalectric Los Angeles, an EMCOR company, completed a unique project in 2009 at the California Science Center: The Extreme Zone, a 170,000-square-foot expansion that nearly doubled the amount of exhibit space in the center. In the Desert Zone, Dynalectric was challenged to create a star field inside of an animal exhibit that would serve as a habitat for live bats. Visitors peer into the enclosure and see the nocturnal creatures flying around under a twinkling night sky.

“The most challenging aspect of this task was to have to drill tiny holes through the exhibit wall, insert the fiber optic strands and silicone them into place,” said Nichole Brice, Dynalectric project manager.

Dynalectric’s scope of work also included installation and programming of lighting that would be part of a lightning storm simulation. Every 10 minutes, the gallery darkens and visitors experience the sound, lighting and water effects that simulate a storm that results in a flash flood.

With all the types of lighting that exist, from light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to halogen to fluorescent, how does the choice get made?

“Halogen is still the lighting of choice at a museum,” said Kyle Chepulis of Technical Artistry, a lighting design from in New York. “Other technologies that are available are metal halide or LEDs. Metal halide does well in watts per lumen, but you lose all control. You can’t dim, and it takes time for them to turn on and off. So it’s tricky in the museum world to use metal halide.”

Yet sometimes it fits the bill. The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in May 2010 in Charlotte, N.C. The 150,000-square-foot, interactive entertainment attraction honors the history and heritage of NASCAR. Technical Artistry chose metal halide to light Glory Road, an exhibit that showcases historic cars on a track.

“We wanted to light it in a theatrical way,” Chepulis said, “and we needed something bright and punchy that wouldn’t burn out in a few months. So we chose metal halide and placed it 40 feet away from the cars. It was an architectural choice.”

Fiber optic lighting is sometimes the choice as well. In lighting period historic rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s Wrightsman Galleries, Auerbach Glasow French used that source, among others.

“To accent objects in the room, we integrated a fiber optic-based spotlight system into the vertical stanchions of the personnel barriers to highlight small features of the furniture, like a carved chair leg or the glints of crystal,” French said.

“One of the elements changing in the world of museums is that the digital age of lighting sources is upon us,” said Zack Zanolli, associate principal, Fisher Marantz Stone, New York. “A relatively new tool, the LED, has only recently become viable because the quality, efficiency and intensity of the white light version finally allow it to function as an alternative to halogen or fluorescent sources. It still has limitations. There are inconsistencies between LED manufacturers, and the technology is susceptible to overheating. So there are applications where it’s not appropriate to use them.

“It’s also important to note that white LEDs don’t render the entire spectrum of color. That’s why I call it a tool and not a universal solution. If an artifact to be displayed is color-critical, a white light LED might be the wrong source in a museum. But there are certain places where an LED has become a valuable new tool in the toolbox. It has become beneficial in applications to save energy with power density mandates required in ASHRAE and LEED. For example, it became a tool that let us animate the auditorium at the Disney Family Museum. We used blue LEDs to bring out the richness of a colored ceiling and white LED to provide sparkle and accent. We still used fluorescent light tubes to provide the basic ambient light that was needed because LED wouldn’t have been as efficient. We also applied white LEDs to signage and graphic elements throughout the museum. Even the LED downlight has started to compete with traditional sources for architectural applications. Every light source has its own best application. In lighting, as with any discipline, it is always best to use the right tool for the right job.”

Another plus: LEDs are dimmable.

“With LEDs, because of the pulse modulation, you can be fairly precise in your dimming,” Weintraub said. “A good example is an exhibit case I designed that is in a public hallway of the Julliard School of Music. An LED light illuminates musical manuscripts in the case, and the LEDs are on a control box that has a precisely targeted occupancy sensor with a linear PIR [passive infrared]. When it’s not sensing occupancy, there is a low glow. When someone walks within 6 inches of the case, the lights turn on to maximum. I don’t mind how bright the lights in the case are because they are not on for long.”

Museum lighting calls for an unusual degree of coordination between the electrical contractor, architect and the lighting designer. And, the success of the project depends on the skills and ingenuity of the electrical contractors.

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at and

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or www.susancaseybooks...

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