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Meet the South Australian Museum’s Lion (Tail) Tamer

Tom Pyrzakowski
Photos: Naomi Giatas

Walking into the South Australian Museum is like stepping into a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Turn left and you encounter tombs of ancient mummies, the beady eye of Horus staring in judgement. Turn right and you’ll find yourself in a veritable Noah’s ark of stuffed Mammalia. It’s here that you’ll find industrial designer Tom Pyrzakowski’s most finicky work to date.

Nathan (the stuffed lion) lounges behind a glass case. An air of anticipation fills the waiting children (and more than a few adults). Watches are checked, shoes are tapped. At last, the tail twitches. The crowd cheers. Mission accomplished. Tom can laugh about replacing the famed lion’s tail, now. “We had to build a new tail out of steel,” he says. “It’s kind of like a fishing rod connected to a windscreen wiper. The old one was plastic so I had one made out of metal and put a new wire in it.” The process took an agonising two months. “All these people were coming to the museum saying, ‘I’m standing here watching this tail and it’s not wagging! I was here 10 years ago and I’ve brought my children. We’ve waited 10 years and it’s not bloody working!’ I ruined the whole museum and its reputation. It works fine now, though.”

With a degree in industrial design and a background working in science centres, moving into the world of museum exhibition design seems a natural fit. “The objects may be really simple but the stories behind them, how they are used and how we treat them is just completely left of field to what I’ve been used to.”

Tom Pyrzakowski

A reverence for stories combined with modern practice is evident in his favourite exhibition to date – Yidaki Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia.

“Yidaki integrated a lot of different elements into it, particularly interactives. Things that show people a different way of looking at or feeling a subject. In Yidaki we had interactions like vibrating floors, lighting and video that I hadn’t normally associated with how a museum exhibition would be. It was really, really refreshing.”

When he’s not fitting out exhibitions, Tom tinkers. “There isn’t actually a typical day [at the museum], but there are typical things. We have a building that gets hundreds or thousands of people [through] every single day. If something is not perfect it’s just not going to work. It will only last a day or two. When we build things they have to last for weeks, months or even years. Like the lion’s tail.”

Working with a talented team is a bonus, as is living and working in South Australia. “I think I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. SA has been incredibly supportive for me. We really have the manufacturing background here. Having had Holden and Mitsubishi, we’ve got machinists and toolmakers – we’ve got incredible skills. It’s not hard for me to get things made.”

His next project? “There’ll be some fun stuff in the Mawson Gallery – one of the oldest galleries –  with a bunch of interactive content [going] into it. Lights and gauges and sound and things like that. All the fun stuff.”

The Mawson Gallery refresh opens early 2018.

Smiley Fritz

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