Tom Tits Experiment (the whole place)

Review

of an Exhibition

by Erik Thogersen

Published on May 28, 2010, Modified on August 03, 2011

  • Description:

    When staff at the Exploratorium list museums that they find inspiring, Tom Tits Experiment, located an hour outside of Stockholm Sweden, is generally near the top of the list. This May I finally had the chance to visit, and arrived with much anticipation. I had seen photos, and spent some time with their former director, Klas Fresk, but I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. I wasn’t disappointed.

    Design
    The thing that hit me first and ended up inspiring me the most was the amazing environmental design at Tom Tits. It’s homey, varied, whimsical, funny, authentic, marvelous and more. At the Exploratorium we tend not to emphasize environmental design, but this was design that I could get excited about. Not high museum design with matching Formica, polished metal, and endless screens built into fancy cases, this was an amazing eclectic wonderland that filled every inch of their vast space 4 level 2 building space. (6500 m2 inside, 9500 m2 outside.) They used lots of natural materials, stone, brick, pebbles, solid wood, untreated metal, fabric and the old factory building itself to give every space character. They don’t move exhibits, so almost everything was built into the building in a carefully chosen well lit spot. (Even the few Exploratorium exhibits they had purchased had been bolted to the floor.) There was attention to sound and the feel of things. In their water area a little pump made a wonderful periodic click and splash as it bathed itself in water. Klas likes to say that they wanted their museum to say “welcome home” rather than “welcome to the government”. They use interior architects with experience designing homes more than museums to give the place a comfortable feel more like a cool loft living room than a museum.

    Exhibits
    At Tom Tits Experiment there are 610 exhibits that span a wide spectrum from tiny simple things that sit on a window sill, to amusement park style thrill rides. I got the impression that the designers there have the freedom to put out anything they come across that strikes them as interesting. (Though I failed to find out how this creativity is merged with the extremely well thought out interior design.)

    An exhibit can be a funny picture of a house taken at a steep angle in San Francisco or a bench to sit on that also has curved slots where you can roll a marble. Or a steam cleaned sewer pipe you can crawl through, a giant yo-yo you can hang from, a gyroscope hidden in a suitcase or a metal cage one meter in every dimension with a sign listing previous record numbers of visitors inside and a note to alert a staff person if you’d like to go for a record. There are reverse steering bicycles, a four story slide, a mirror maze that’s just spectacular, anatomical models that are graphic in the Swedish style, and a giant helium balloon that takes 12 passengers to a height of 200 meters (for an extra fee.)

    The word that kept popping into my head was playground. This word sounds somewhat not serious or science related, but Tom Tits demonstrates that it can be something to aspire to. It was an incredibly rich and varied environment where there was something big or little for children and adults to discover at every turn. We were there from 9 in the morning until 4, and we didn’t find the half of it.

    There are also a few amusement park attractions that strayed over the line between inspiring wonderland and theme park. A free fall ride and robocoaster seemed designed to attract visitors, and generate revenue I imagine. Tom Tits generates a large share of it’s revenue at the gate, and would not be well positioned to receive an NSF grant were it in the US. It doesn’t seem focused enough on new content areas or innovative strategies beyond the brilliant core strategy they’ve mastered.

    Labels
    One aspect of Tom Tits that has generated a lot of buzz at the Exploratorium that didn’t live up to the hype is their radical label strategy. The buzz was that they use almost no labels on exhibits, and instead put all of their text into a 288 page catalog that is included in the admission price. The idea is that most exhibit interactions will not be label driven, and instead will encourage visitors to explore on their own, discover what they discover, and focus on their experiences rather than on the museums text explaining their experiences. The catalog is available to allow those who want to read, to read, and is useful for teachers, parents and anyone who wants more. It also solves the multi-lingual label problem. Every exhibit is numbered in a sequence. Every couple of years they spend about 2 weeks moving every number in the museum to line up with the new catalog. If a new exhibit appears in between it has a “new exhibit” label which draws attention to its newness.

    Overall I did appreciate exploring the place without labels and sometimes without even knowing if an exhibit was an exhibit, as an unlabeled object built into the environment can be ambiguous. But that added to the pleasure of discovery. I tried using the catalog several times, and found it quite quick to find the right page.

    But it wasn’t a panacea. They do in fact have a decent amount of text on some exhibits, as much as we would have at the Exploratorium. I’m not quite sure why some have it and some don’t. The catalog was surprisingly terse, sometimes containing less that we would have put on a label. To me it seemed a perfect opportunity to add the extended explanation that we shy away from on an exhibit. The labels they do have seem less well thought out and tested than I would shoot for, as though they don’t give it the attention they give the exhibit and its environment. I ended up feeling like the tried and true method of putting the text you need right on the exhibit makes more sense. Though I do think there is something profound about the tone they set with so many unlabeled exhibits. I feel inspired to find a new solution that puts text that visitors need more readily at hand, while maintaining the explore at your own direction feeling.

    All in all, a trip well worth the 11 hour flight.

Latest Comments (1)

Comparable to Explora?

by Nina Simon - August 19, 2010

Thanks for sharing this, Erik! I love the images of the water area and human body – very beautiful. I’m heading back to Copenhagen this fall and might have to take the long train trip to check this out. It looks like a more science-y, less insane City Museum.

With regard to the labels, I’m curious how you’d compare their approach to that of Explora. I found Explora remarkable for their very low-touch approach to labels, and while I liked it, I know some people get frustrated by it. Curious how your Swedish experience relates to a place that’s only a one-hour flight from SF…

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