Mari Kaljuste

What Is Light? Professor Georg Friedrich Parrot’s Physics Lab

Stylish two-hundred-year-old scientific instruments

The basics of optics – light refraction and reflection – were established already in the 17th century. The nature of light was a subject of great controversy in Professor Parrot’s time in the early 19th century, but this did not interfere with progress in the optics industry. Optical instruments of an entirely new level were produced, such as achromatic microscopes, telescopes and sextants. Parrot was well aware of all the innovations and commissioned the best masters to make scientific instruments for the university’s physics laboratory. The scientific equipment of his physics laboratory is among the most valuable parts of the collection of the University of Tartu Museum. At the exhibition, visitors can see these stylish and unique scientific instruments, dating back over two hundred years, in all their authenticity.

Hands-on optics

Many tools for presenting optical phenomena are basically the same as in the early 19th century. All visitors to Parrot’s physics laboratory exhibition can test the replicas of various historical demonstration devices, such as the camera obscura, camera lucida and anamorphosis. The exhibition also shows the application of optics in different types of telescopes and light projection. Visitors can get answers the questions about how we perceive the world by means of light, how colours arise and blend, and how ray optics generally works.

Parrot’s physics laboratory shows how knowledge of the laws of nature can make our lives better and more exciting and introduces optics as an important field of physics in an attractive and playful way. The lab allows visitors to explore and discover the causal links of some natural phenomena and how human knowledge accumulated over centuries.

Upcoming educational programmes

Attractive educational programmes on ray optics will be created based on the exhibition.


Physical access 

  • The exhibition is on the seventh floor of the University of Tartu Museum and is accessible by lift. 

  • There is enough space to manoeuvre a wheelchair around.  

  • There are several chairs in the exhibition hall, allowing visitors to sit and rest. 

Light and sound 

  • The room is adequately lit by ceiling lamps and display case lighting. During the day, there is also plenty of natural light in the exhibition hall. If necessary, ask the museum staff to add more light. 

  • The exhibition texts are in white on a dark background or in dark on a light background and are easily readable. 

  • There is no background music in the room.

Read more about accessibility in the building.

Exhibition team

Curators: Lea Leppik, Kärt Soieva 

Designer: Mari Kurismaa 

Graphic designer: Mari Kaljuste 

Project manager: Ken Ird 

Technician and project manager: Tanel Nõmmik 

Consultants: Jaak Jaaniste, Jaak Kikas 

Team: Anne Arus, Karoliina Kalda, Madis Kasemaa, Ele Loonde, Külli Lupkin, Netty Muld, Kristiina Ribelus, Maris Tuuling 

Editor: Sirje Toomla 

Translator: tõlkebüroo Scriba 

Video: Tartu Ülikooli visuaalmeedia talitus / University of Tartu Visual Media Service  

Print: reklaamibüroo Salibar 

Lighting: Heiki Taal 

Furniture and equipment: Akka Disain, Ingemar Maasikmäe (Restaureerimiskeskus), reklaamibüroo Salibar 

Origin of objects and materials: Tartu Ülikooli muuseum / University of Tartu Museum, Tartu Ülikooli füüsika instituut / University of Tartu Institute of Physics, Tartu Ülikooli raamatukogu / University of Tartu Library, Rahvusarhiiv / Estonian National Archives, Läti riiklik ajalooarhiiv / Latvian State Historical Archive, Epi Tohvri „Georges Frédéric Parrot. Tartu Keiserliku Ülikooli esimene rektor“ (Tartu, 2019); „XIX sajandi alguse füüsikariistu Tartu Ülikooli ajaloo muuseumis“, koostaja Erna Kõiv (Tartu, 1989) 

Acknowledgements: Paul Erik Olli (Teadusbuss), Andres Tennus, Maarja Roosi 

Sponsors: Eesti Kultuurkapital, Eesti Teadusagentuur