4 Lessons for Corporate Public Storytelling from the TOTO Museum

As a follow up from the Singapore installment I wrote last month, I thought I’d write another “Lessons in Public History Storytelling,” this time about the TOTO Museum. I’ve spent the last two weeks traveling north through Kyushu and southern Honshu, focused mainly on the roughly two dozen locations that comprise the UNESCO sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution. During that time it has been rewarding to step back and appreciate some of the standalone public history experiences I’ve had. While I’ve been trying to bring a critical eye to all of my explorations during this fellowship year, I also think there’s a place for identifying and analyzing institutions that are doing things well. Being able to discern what makes good museums tick is as important in the overall critical apparatus as calling out aspects that aren’t working in less-than-stellar public history experiences.

What does your plumbing say about you?

The TOTO Museum’s unequivocal answer to this question: EVERYTHING. It turns out that from the shape of the porcelain you pee on, a whole lot can be extrapolated not only about personal tastes, but also national development, vernacular architecture, and infrastructural technologies.

When John and I arrived at the TOTO Museum mid-afternoon last Wednesday, we were greeted by a crisply uniformed guard. His navy attire and white gloves seemed a throwback to another time, particularly set against the futuristic building masses behind him. The museum is comprised of two conjoined buildings, opened in 2015 (the company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017). The long, ovoid building and the four-story stack next to it, we later learned, are based on the shape of a water droplet and a mountain of earth. Will this look like dated blobbitecture in 10 years? Possibly. Do I really care? No. For the function of this museum, nothing but contemporary googie architecture would do. The main entrance to the complex is through the “water droplet” building, whose lobby recalls a business class airport lounge. Two motion-activated escalators take you up to the visitor center and gift shop. On our way up, we passed several dozen school children coming down. We exchanged the requisite “hellos!” (we’ve gotten very used to saying “hello” many times over to eager kiddos). A group of businesspeople were receiving a very quiet and dignified tour from a company official when we arrived—a reminder that this is very much the museum of an active and evolving corporation.

In general, I have reservations about corporate museums. A lot of my research to date has been about how technology gets sold at museums and exhibitions. I know the tricks. I know that museums like this are always part advertising and propaganda, usually layered with some “edutainment” to make the whole thing seem a bit more edifying. And while the TOTO Museum is certainly a hard sell for the brand, it also contains a surprising amount of insightful historical analysis and excellent exhibit design. Insofar as a corporate museum has no real obligation to be a tool of public history, TOTO is still doing a lot of things right in this regard. While this post is targeted towards corporate museums specifically, some of these takeaways are also applicable to a wider range of storytelling institutions.

1) Provide intuitive multi-language support.

The museums I’ve visited in Japan have dealt with non-Japanese-speaking visitors in many different ways. In some cases, a supplementary pamphlet is provided that sums up the main points of an exhibition. Others use multi-lingual audio guides to translate or provide supplemental information. Some merely have partial English translations available for the main text panels, but all of the smaller panels and artifact labels are in Japanese only. TOTO offers both an audio guide and a series of scannable QR codes that translate the exhibits in their entirety into around ten different languages. The audio guide was admittedly a bit hard to use, in part because there was a tour going on nearby, which rendered it difficult to hear, and the “speaker” on the audio guide was a computer generated voice rather than a real person. The QR code scan, on the other hand, was simple to initiate and thanks to embedded photos in the exhibit translations, easy to match up the text with physical display. As a researcher, it also made it simple for me to keep the information as a PDF after our visit. The main downside to this format, in my opinion, is that we spent a lot of time looking at our phones. But that was worth it to me, since we were able to participate and understand fully the information in the museum.

2) Keep the amount of information presented manageable.

Some of the better museums I’ve seen so far this year have been those that are doable in 75 minutes or fewer. And beyond merely being short in terms of time required, the best institutions also stay “on message.” There’s a clear narrative arc and all of the exhibits or displays build on a single, unified theme. It’s somewhat frustrating that the corporate world has internalized this lesson so much better than many academic storytellers. As I know from personal experience, when you’re passionate about your topic, it can be tempting to expound ad nauseam, embellishing with all the interesting little details. Digressions and footnotes do not translate well into the realm of public history though. By contrast, advertising professionals excel at identifying a key theme or narrative, and driving that point home. It’s how you sell a product.

This consumer-facing know-how certainly enhances the efficacy of the TOTO Museum. John and I wished we could have had a bit more time, but we were able to see pretty much everything in about an hour. In a sense, each component display could function individually as a microcosm of the greater whole. While the exhibits vary in their content and style (everything is, of course, incredibly slick and high production value), the driving themes are clear throughout. Which brings us to point 2…

3) Show how your corporate brand connects to something greater.

TOTO does this really effectively. The component displays of the museum present a threefold argument:

A. The story of TOTO is the story of Japan’s industrial revolution and modernization.

B. The development of TOTO’s products can be understood as a proxy for the changing lifestyles, work habits, and architectural culture of Japan throughout the twentieth century.

C. Contemporary TOTO is a critical contributor to global design discourse.

Model of an early kiln for firing porcelain. Things have come a long way at TOTO since then.

These intertwined theses work particularly well in the context of the museum because they highlight both the global aspects of the brand, and its specific role in the Japanese industrial revolution. Before there was a demand for mass-produced sanitary fixtures in Japan, the company’s founders built an export empire making clean, white porcelain using a combination of traditional Japanese craft methods and Western factory production (that portion of the original company is still in business today as Noritake). Once the westernization and industrialization of Japan was in full swing, suddenly porcelain flush toilets were a hot commodity. The basic assumptions behind these two original products—everyone needs to eat, and have access to adequate sanitation facilities—becomes a disarming and approachable entrée into a nuanced discussion of the impacts of industrialization and changes in the daily lives of everyday Japanese people. Although the museum still focuses on the “great man history” aspect of its founders, the thing that set it apart from other corporate museums I’ve seen was the way it also addressed social and architectural change in Japanese society more broadly.

Finally, while at the same time laying claim to a long history of hybridizing Japanese craft and Western industrial production, the museum also makes the case for the brand’s present-day status as a pioneer in the global of design. A temporary exhibition space has been set aside to feature the works of innovative architectural firms, and the company has engaged a series of well known architects to design toilets (similar to furniture companies that have commissioned architects to create one-off chair designs). It’s a smart move, because this engagement with the design profession generally, and architecture specifically, strengthens the historical narrative that TOTO is as much about craft and design as it is about engineering.

What makes these narratives so convincing, so readily communicated to the museum visitor? That has to do with the design of the exhibits themselves…

4) Vary the scale, tone, and content of the displays.

The museum building itself also contains a showroom (which we unfortunately not able to see before closing time), but the museum itself is a kind of a showroom. When showing industrial products in a museum setting, the two traps I’ve seen museums fall into are either including way too many examples of virtually identical objects (see my blog post Artifact Vomit) or falling back on a dry, taxonomic model where model versions are treated like scientific “species.” TOTO does an admirable job of showing industrial products in such a way that they appear visually interesting and varied. TOTO, of course, manufactures many products, but is best known for its toilets. Here are all of the ways I encountered toilets at the museum:

A. In a chronological line-up, from the company’s first toilets c. 1917 all the way through the latest and greatest “Neorest” model of today. This method, while often a bit reductive, is an effective way of demonstrating how a product has changed over time to meet changing cultural norms and consumer expectations.

TOTO Toilets through the ages.

B. In the context of a “visit to the factory”. This model is frequently employed by corporations as a way to demonstrate all of the expertise and behind-the-scenes engineering/design work that goes into a product. TOTO didn’t allow pictures of this area (trade secrets, I would guess), but you can get a sense of it in the area behind John in the photograph below.

John watches a video about how TOTO Toilets are designed and made. Top secret!

C. In a recreations of typical Japanese bathrooms through the ages. These “typical” bathrooms were particularly effective in showing how the changes in TOTO’s designs over time lined up with corresponding changes in architectural materials and technology. In Japan, the adjustment from the squat toilet to the Western-style seated toilet was culturally (as well as ergonomically) significant, and these period bathrooms usefully showed how TOTO helped ease the transition from the former to the latter, even at one point creating models that could be used squatting or seated.

The mid-twentieth-century toilet in all its glory. We stayed at a place that was still using this model, complete with the terry cloth seat cover.

D. In recreations of historically significant bathrooms from various periods. Notably, these weren’t just bathrooms for the rich and famous (though there were a few of those as well), these also included reconstructions of bathrooms in, for instance, the Kasumagaseki Office Building, an architecturally significant building from 1968. These were scattered through the slightly more “scientific” displays showing flush capacity and water-saving technologies, and were an effective way to break up the more engineering-focused portions with a little history.

Toilet design meets tall office building architecture? This is all pretty thrilling for me.

E. In a global comparison of TOTO’s current line. The final room of the exhibition shows the products that TOTO is currently marketing in China, Europe, the Americas, and Japan. In order to expand its market share to a global audience, the company has had to cater to different ideas about what a bathroom experience should be, and to varying plumbing systems and different urban infrastructure. I hadn’t thought about how ingrained the elevated tank toilet is in American culture until visiting this room.

The Neorest collection (AKA dream bathroom) in a room of TOTO’s current global export lines.

F. As part of a humorous and somewhat terrifying “toilet bike” that runs on “biofuel” (yes, it’s what you think it is). It even has a super-sized roll of toilet paper flailing from the rear. When we visited, it was stationed by the museum library, which is full of books on Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando. And yes, it was quite strange. But coming from the country that pioneered the Oscar Meier Weiner-mobile, I don’t think I have any right to judge.

I just don’t even know any more. Maybe this should have been my transport method for this fellowship year?