Au revoir, Tom

It’s with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our brilliant compadre, Thomas Flynn.

Tom and I began working together back in March of 2015 as we made The Small Museum V1 together with Harriet Maxwell. I was immediately impressed by his talent, care and thoroughness. When I incorporated the company in October 2015, it was a no-brainer to ask Tom to join me as co-founder.

He’s so good, in fact, he was offered a job too good to refuse by the crew at Sketchfab. We wish him all the best leading their growing Cultural Heritage program.

Tom, we’ll miss your warmth and talent, and we couldn’t have come so far without you, mate. Thank you.

Here’s a link to Tom’s Sketchfab profile, in case you’d like to follow what he’s up to over there. We certainly will be!

Museum in a Box in print!

A little while back, Alex Bate from the Raspberry Pi Foundation discovered us through The Planets box Tom made over a weekend to experiment with a new object form factor, and public domain content, Holst’s The Planets.

Box Prototype No.13 – The Planets from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

It was lovely to get a note from Alex wanting to find out more, and even better to host her at our office to meet and talk about everything, and write an article for MagPi, the magazine published by the Foundation.

cover of MagPi issue 54But, what was absolutely the best and a thrill for this little crew, was to walk across the street to the local newsagent and buy as many copies of MagPi #54, and turn to the amazing four-page spread Alex wrote about us!!

MagPi at the office!

And as a special bonus, Alex also included an image in the article that can trigger one of our Augmented Reality experiments!

So, thanks to Alex, Raspberry Pi and MagPi for this brilliant article! (I’ve sent a copy to my parents.) 🙂

Reflections on 2016

We’ve been working on Museum in a Box for just over a year now. We have made lots of prototypes, talked to all sorts of people, and had lots of exciting adventures. This is a little late coming, but Tom and I wanted to consciously reflect on last year’s work as we swing around to planning 2017 (which I’ll write about a bit later).

We’ve chosen a set of particular highlights that we thought stood out, and noted some casual reactions to them… Hope you enjoy the format 🙂

We were also pleased as punch to host Imogen Piper, a design student from Goldsmith’s, and Charlie Cattel-Killick, a sustainable product design graduate from Falmouth University who we ended up bringing into the fold!

Box highlights

  • First commission!
    Anne’s Big Stuff from the British Museum

    • George: When you’re starting something, it’s so helpful to have simple, unconditional support. Thanks to Russell for thinking of us.
    • Tom: This was great to kick start our production process and get us thinking about collections and the juxtaposition of object and content.
  • Ancient Egypt, Daily Lives
    British Museum demo box

    • George: A tiny insect tries to bite a huge beast. Thanks to Lizzie and Chris for not squishing us immediately, but allowing us to nibble for a bit. 😀
    • Tom: A nice first step working with a biggie. An excercise in designing 3D replicas from scratch and we got to test the box with some real-life museum kids!
  • Frogs in a Box
    Smithsonian demo box

    • George: Our first remote deployment. Very exciting to see a photo of the box in Washington DC.
    • Tom: Another stellar commision for us! Extremely grateful to Martin and Sara for believing in our potential.
  • The Planets

    • George: It was such a thrill to see Tom make this. A completely new form factor, and public domain content.
    • Tom: Sometimes it’s fun to run with a simple idea and this got a good public reaction. Bonus!
  • I See Wonder
    • George: Dreaming about a large pilot around the Smithsonian Libraries “I See Wonder” program (20 schools across 20 US states, working with kids on design, too) gave us a real taste of how big this thing could get, and stretched us handily considering such a big deployment.
    • Tom: Seeing what happens when we match our design and tech with Sara Cardello’s learning framework was pretty inspirational tbh!
  • MOO collaboration
    • George: We always knew we’d need help with distribution of boxes, and MOO’s NFC tech was right up our alley. Thanks to Chad, Phil, and Richard for supporting our crazy schemes!
    • Tom: Another nice (and ongoing) match: MOO make lovely paper products with embedded NFC that plays nice with our Brains. Plus we get to hang out with packaging expert Phil Thomas.

Select Clients & Projects

  • Cuming Museum
    • George: One of our first pieces of work that went from original objects to prints, thanks to Tom’s amazing 3D chops.
    • Tom: A nice validation of how 3D scanning can create access to the inaccessible and an amazing glimpse into how hard small museum staff work to connect people to heritage.
  • Science Museum
    • George: All sorts of opportunities here, from in-gallery display to outreach. Plus, they have an enigma machine.
    • Tom: Feels good that museum education staff here are exploring how 3D & interactive can be used in their work.
  • Smithsonian!
    • George: Part of our 2016 strategy was to try to work directly with big museums. Proud to say our “Frogs in a Box” box achieved this goal.
    • Tom: Wuuuut?! Yes this is true and makes me very happy.
  • First custom PCB
    • George: Even though the PCB is quite small, this was an exciting step for me. I absolutely love our physical progress bar feature, and was equally thrilled when Adrian suggested a custom board to support it! I should probably make some jewellry.
    • Tom: Adrian is a genius and made this look so simple! Inspirational and functional 🙂
  • Tiny micro:bit code contribution
    • George: We had been thinking integration with micro:bit would be good for us — probably like lots of other people! — because it has been so well distributed across the country. Still thinking that.
    • Tom: It was amazing to have Tom and Michal from Microsoft Research (!) in our studio, taking us through the possibilities of connecting our Brains to the micro:bit – and then making it happen!
  • Slippery travel crap / VHNIreland video
    • George: A mixture of deep regret and happiness because Tom and I made a good video to play at the talk we missed. Funny how adversity can produce lots of smiles 🙂
    • Tom: We were invited, we prepared, we missed the plane, we made a video, we were there in spirit. VHN are lovely people!

Selected Presentations

    • Lancaster Arts Additive Manufacturing Workshop
      • George: I really enjoyed meeting the folks around this workshop, particularly the amazing 3D printing engineers at Lancaster. Thanks to Richard and Caroline for inviting me!
    • Music Tech Fest
      • Tom: An exercise in capturing an event and working with (very clever) young people at the event in Berlin.
    • Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage (FARO)
      • George: Great to visit Brussels to talk about our work and “virtual heritage”. Nice to have Lizzie Edwards as my travel companion, too.

All in all, a pretty good year! Can’t wait to build on what we consider to be a great success. It’s also important to recognise and celebrate the efforts of Adrian McEwen, our brilliant technical partner from The North, who is responsible for much of the hardware-related development we’ve done this year (and some software too). Thanks, Adrian!

Developing an educational strategy

We’re a core team of designers. We’re not trained educators. While each of us has had quite a bit of exposure to museums, from within and without, and indeed have taught, both kids and adults, with Museum in a Box, we’re trying to improve on a very old idea, of museums’ handling collections being used as learning aids. That’s meant a crash course in the vast landscape of education. Boy, is it HUGE.

Fairly early on, I came up with a matrix-y thing to illustrate what I think are the main segments that our boxes might fit into. You can see it’s a combination of finished or DIY boxes, in a classroom or retail environment.

So, you have a spectrum between a finished box and a DIY box, and you might find one of these in either a classroom, or a retail space like a museum shop.

finished box might contain objects and their stories that are very directly tied to a specific curriculum area and its learning outcomes. This box might be targeted towards younger students, or at least written/designed for a specific age group or key stage.

A DIY box might be used as a teaching device for slightly older students, perhaps high school age, who are starting to dive deep into design/tech subject areas. In this case, you might not purchase anything physical, but only digital and schematic things. Students would put together the entire thing, from configuring the Brain, to writing the content, to producing the content, to printing the objects, to making the container, etc. We like this approach because the kids could learn a thing or two about history or art or science as they’re constructing a product. It feels like great cross-pollinatory learning, and the teachers we’ve talked about it agree.

You could see either of these boxes also existing in a retail environment. We’d love to make a box to accompany an exhibition, so instead of that spectacularly unsatisfying experience of only being about to buy one or two postcards of what you’ve just seen, you could buy a box that lets you delve deep into every aspect of the exhibition, including perhaps even how it was made. You take it back home and can spend time. We also like imagining this type of box in a pre/visit/post context… maybe the box could be sent to schools before the students visit your museum, so they can be familiar with what they’ll see before they arrive. Once they’ve come and seen things, they could produce their own impressions of it all, and make their Museum in a Box play that instead of the Official Point of View.

Personally, I’m also curious about the collision of Museum in a Box with Design/Tech because, to me at least, it feels like lots of the tech projects out there suffer a little from a lack of content, or that it’s engineering for engineering’s sake? But, then you watch videos of kids making electric guitars with a  micro:bit and maybe that proves me wrong in an instant.

Each of these types of boxes and their associated activities and work leads me to a concept we bumped into in the course of last year. As we were working with Sara Cardello, Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, on a pilot partnership, we discovered the idea of 21st Century Skills. As I understand it, the general initiative was formed in 2002, as a coalition of the business community, education leaders and policymakers who were determined to:

[put] 21st century readiness at the centre of US K-12 education and to kick-start a national conversation on the importance of 21st century skills for all students.

Framework for 21st Century Learning

While there is certainly still emphasis placed on “mastery of fundamental subjects” like English or Maths, 21st century themes are introduced too, around information / media / tech, learning and innovation (and importantly, improvisation), and broader life/career skills.

It’s about setting students on a course to build muscles around things like cogent reasoning, evidence collection, critical thinking and analytical communication, all of which are surely useful when it comes to investigating cultural description and points of view generated in certain context.

  • You can see the skills outlined in the P21 Framework. There’s a ton of documentation on the site too. Lots to explore.

3D Museums: Tactile learning, greater access

Over the last year or so, we’ve also been steadily learning more about object-based learning, and we think it fits in especially well with the overall tenets of 21st century skills, combined with Museum in a Box. Object-based learning is used at the British Museum too, with school groups that come to visit. With thanks to Lizzie Edwards for sharing her knowledge in this area with us.

The main benefits of using objects in learning, according to UCL Museums and Collections, are that they:

  • provide a direct link with a topic or ‘the past’ and can really enhance young people’s interest in and understanding of a topic/subject.
  • encourage learners to use all their senses – especially touch, sight and smell.
  • help to develop the important skill of drawing conclusions based on an examination of evidence, together with an understanding of the limitations and reliability of evidence.
  • are ideal for generating group and class discussion.
  • promote the value of museums and encourage young people to visit museums and galleries with their families to further their learning.

One of the diagrams I found in my research is a handy glanceable thing to help you quickly understand that object-based learning is about asking interesting questions of an object, from lots of different angles… This diagram has been recreated — mostly so it fitted in with the colour scheme of a presentation I was giving! — from the superb report (in PDF format): Learning Through Culture: The DfES Museums and Galleries Education Programme: A guide to good practice (2002)

I presented these rough ideas in Brussels in late November at the Faro’s “Heritage, virtual and augmented” conference. Here are the slides (or a version with presenter notes):

Bright Lights

We continue to research and look to leaders in innovative learning around the world as we ourselves try to learn more about how Museum in a Box can actually help museum educators and teachers, and not hinder them,

We find ourselves studying systems like:

  • diy.org – “DIY is a safe online community for kids to discover new passions, level up their skills, and meet fearless geeks just like them.” Who says education can’t co-exist with creativity??
  • Technology Will Save Us – We’ve been especially impressed by the generosity of the TWSU Education folks. All their stuff in published online, and let me tell you, we’ve been studying it! 🙂
  • AltSchool – “creating a 21st century work environment for our educators”, “supporting, rather than disempowering, with technology”.

There’s a long way to go, but broadly speaking we’re liking the feel of a framework that blends object-based learning and 21st century skills as our starting point.

We’ve already written a job description for an Education Producer – we know it’s a gap – but happily learning about this new, huge environment in the meantime. If you know of a good group or person who might be interested to fund a position like that (maybe a contract to the tune of £10k?) then please tell us who we should talk to!

 

Failure to get to Cork = virtual presentation for #vhnireland

Last Friday, Tom and I had the best intentions in the world of presenting to the attendees of Virtual Heritage Network Ireland in Cork. We were all set to talk about Letting Objects Speak for Themselves, and show folks some working boxes. It was also going to be my first visit to Ireland! But, our journey ended at Stansted, after a remarkable slurry of travel woes I shan’t bore you with. Suffice it to say that everything that could have gone wrong, did.

With our tails between our legs, Tom and I knew we wanted to send something in our place, so we headed back to HQ to see if we could make a video version of what we’d planned to talk about. Fate steps in again – we’d both not brought our office keys! (And Charlie was off at the Wellcome’s 3d4ever meeting!) Gah!

Luckily, the little office next door was open, so we were able to suck the office wifi, and we put together a version of what we would have said on stage to send over. Phew!

Museum in a Box – Letting Objects Speak for Themselves – VHN Ireland from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

We were very happy to watch people via Twitter telling us they enjoyed it. A soothing balm after a shitty day, and overall, a helpful result!

 

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

Our first branded hardware!

Over the past nine months or so, we’ve been able to show Museum in a Box to hundreds of people, either in our office or at events, and the response has been fantastic.

It’s also been ongoing informal user research, and we’ve had the chance to watch people figure out how to use it. We’ve varied our description of the mechanics and amount of setup, and observed (very casually) little sticking points. One of the main things we noticed is that it wasn’t clear when the Brain was ready to go. The Raspberry Pi 2 takes a while to start up and get ready to read an object, about 30 seconds, actually. So, we’ve added a physical progress bar to the box to help people know when it’s ready. It even says READY!

Adrian soldered the first version, which you can see here. We also adjusted the layout of the box to simplify it a bit. All you really need to know about is power, volume and when it’s ready.

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And we put a BIG GREEN LIGHT at the end, which is fun.

2016-06-08 13.41.05-1

I’ve also been thinking about what kind of simple instructions we’ll need to include in a box that doesn’t have us driving it. Hopefully something like this, with just three steps would be good.

2016-06-17 14.57.28

And then, Adrian took a very exciting step and ordered us our very own Printed Circuit Board (PCB) to drive the progress bar from now on.

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2016-07-15 16.32.09

It’s possible I’m overexcited about the progress bar, but, I love it!

Big Stuff Arrangements

One of my favourite things about museums in boxes is that whoever is looking at the stuff can arrange them however they like.

Even in our very first version, on the very first day, all we did was arrange the stuff. It was interesting to arrange them by the date they were made, and the date they were acquired by the museum. We also mapped them geographically too.

Here’s the display we made that day:

The Small Museum Version One
Untitled
The Small Museum Version One

We’re working on our first commission – Woo! – and it’s a set of Big Stuff from the British Museum. You can obviously arrange them by size, but also when they were made, and when they were acquired. (Note that the human-sized figure is the box commissioner’s wife, and not part of the British Museum’s collection.)

arrangements

Fun to think about how these sorts of arrangements could be transformed into different information. At the moment, our boxes have a single point of contact, but there could be many. Maybe you can arrange the objects to get different stories.

Bump. Boop!

I just realised we’d set up this blog way back in March 2015. We had no audience then (and don’t have a very big one now, if we’re honest), so the posts were meant as a bit more internal. They might be interesting to you today, and are something of a rough-as-guts archive, so we’ll leave them up.

Lots has happened with the project since then. Here’s a quick timeline:

  • March 2015 – Box 001: Made at Somerset House, under The Small Museum banner
  • October 2015 – Museum in a Box Ltd. incorporated
  • November 2015 – Box 002: On George’s dining room table, paper prototypes examining form and early interaction design ideas
  • December 2015 – Box 003, 004, 005: For public display at the Remix conference at the British Museum. Website V1 online.
  • February 2016 – Box 006: Our first commission! Big Stuff From The British Museum.
  • February 2016 – Gill Wildman joins our Advisory Board
  • March 2016 – First grant applications begin…
  • April 2016 – Nick Stanhope joins our Advisory Board
  • April 2016 – Our first client training session! Martin, Ash, and Ian from the Postal Museum came to the office for an afternoon, and Tom taught them more about Blender. Ask us about training!

photo of the office and trainees

It’s tremendous fun. We’re a Proper Startup too, bootstrapping everything and keeping day jobs and working it out as we go. Right now, we’re thinking about:

  1. Finishing the commission!
  2. Working directly with teachers in classrooms
  3. Partnering with museums around content / box curation
  4. Getting the brain smaller
  5. Building out web editing UIs to help make new boxes quickly
  6. Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.

We’ll plan to write lots more to the blog. I’ve been missing blogging about all the stuff that’s happening. Call me old school, I guess?

Prototyping the Idea

We’re really looking forward to being at Somerset House next week. We’ll be there from Wednesday for about two weeks. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been preparing our first prototype set of objects. (Tom’s going to follow up with a post about all that.) We’re off to iMakr shortly to pick them up!

They’re going to look like this lady, and we can’t wait to start thinking about how to help her tell her story.

goddess