Our mission is to help museums increase access to their collections, and connect people through shared histories. We are in an important historical moment now, so we would like to help gather stories about it.
We’ve noticed already there are projects popping up about what it’s like to live in this moment, alongside COVID-19. We’re hoping to connect to the archivists who are running those, thinking we could gather audio now, for presentation later.
It’s definitely a bit tricky to know what to add… arguably ALL OF TWITTER is a date-bound, hash-tagged oral history of what’s happening. But, we’re specifically after deliberate oral history projects asking for submissions, ideally audio stories.
We’ve begun working on what it can mean for families to have a Box at home. It’s a place we have imagined Boxes to be since we started the company, so we’re excited to have this new opportunity. I’ve referred before to those old photos of a family sitting around a gigantic radio in their lounge, the radio practically its hearth.
We have also declared this lady our spiritual guide for this phase of “A Box at Home” product development:
On Tuesday, we had a great international Zoom with the MB team (George, Charlie, Kate, and Renata), Sara Cardello (Head of Education at Smithsonian Libraries, and Mum to Bruno), Jocelyn Swanson (Montessori secondary educator), and, last but not least, Brittany Berry, whose school recently purchased nine Make Your Own kits to use across the school.
I wanted to hear from Brittany about how the school had been using the kits, and it’s brilliant! (About 30-40 kids creating content, assuming various different roles in the production process, like writer, audio editor, 3D scanner etc). The school is part of a brilliant program called EAST, or Education Accelerated by Service and Technology. The students engage in real-world projects in their communities, learning 21st Century creative and critical skills as they go. You can see some of the collections being developed on Heart.
We’re still parsing that very first discussion, and we’re yet to come together as a group again — because pandemic??! — but I plan to post here as there’s more to show, or ask.
Our rough outline for next steps are:
Summarise key directions for public consumptions
Create some first draft resources to publish on the website about project ideas (but being aware that the whole internet is full of them right now, and in spite of this, kids are feral and that’s fine!)
Rough pass at a user research trial plan
Have another chat with the project team
Two early ideas about projects that could be done at home which aren’t explicitly connected to a Box but easily could be are:
Tell and record your family’s history, or
Keep a diary of what it’s like to live through this.
Telling our stories of COVID-19
We’ve noticed already there are projects popping up about this, and we’d like to try to gather links to them where we can. Maybe there’s a project on it later, maybe we can use them as examples for people who might like to try an audio diary. Maybe it’ll be nothing!
If you’re an educator or a parent, and interested to contribute or otherwise participate in our research and design process, the best way to start is to join our dedicated #educators channel on our public Slack that anyone can join, if you’d like to join in to discuss this work, or hear about new resources.
Well, I surely never thought I’d type that headline. But, there you go. Here we are. I’m actually co-writing this blog post with my brother, Dr. Andy Oates. He’s a biologist and professor working at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). It’s been reassuring to have the odd chat with him as the world descends, and we’ve come up with a list of suggestions and tips for you, about handling your Box and objects safely.
First some terminology: Fomites are inanimate objects or materials that can carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture, or Museums in Boxes. The term fomite comes from the Latin word for tinder (not the dating app). Scientists have been testing a range of materials to figure out how they relate to the transmission of COVID-19, and figuring out how long the virus can survive on surfaces. Andy will point you to the relevant scientific papers on that if you want more detail. Charlie also wrote about cleaning your Box and objects if you have one in our newsletter this week, so I’ve reposted that too, at the bottom of this post.
The main enemies of COVID-19 are distance, time, and soap. Here’s what Dr. Andy has to say about those:
When we cough or sneeze, or even when we yawn or just exhale, we release a mix of droplets and aerosols in our breath. Kind of gross, but there you are. (If you want to know how much water you breathe out, weigh yourself just before you go to bed, and again in the morning.) Droplets are relatively large and heavy, and so they crash to the ground or whatever other surface is around very quickly. Keeping your distance at about 2 metres from another person means you are unlikely to be hit. Aerosols are much smaller, and so stay aloft much longer. This means that in a closed room or other space (car, bus, pub, etc.), the range is much longer. However, it also means that by opening the windows, or by going outside, the risk of aerosol transmission is dramatically reduced, as the tiny particles are diluted more quickly.
Another way infection is spread is via surfaces, the fomites mentioned above. You’ll recall that when our aerosols or droplets touch a surface, or when we touch our nose or mouth and then a door handle, virus are transferred to that surface. But how long do they survive there? A team of scientists at the National Institutes of Health in the USA looked at the survival time of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in various situations that mimic how we might typically spread and encounter it in daily life.
They first created an aerosol in the air that mimicked the density found in the lungs and mouth of an infected human, and deposited it on various surfaces like copper, stainless steel, plastic, and cardboard. At defined time intervals after deposition, they transferred any remaining virus into a petri dish containing kidney cells and counted the number of cells that became infected. This is a tried and trusted method for detecting very small numbers of virus that are still infectious.
They found that the virus was undetectable after three hours in the aerosol, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The amount of virus decreased rapidly in this time (exponentially), so an important lesson is the longer you leave something sitting there, the safer it becomes. For example, if you get a package or letter in the post, put it aside and even if there were virus on it, a day later they will be inactive. Just doing nothing is quite a safe option.
Wash your hands! Seriously, this is one of the most important and easy things you can do. Humans continually touch their faces and the surfaces around them, potentially transferring virus back and forth. Yet, despite the potentially deadly nature of SARS-Cov-2, it cannot withstand 20 seconds of contact with warm soapy water. This is because it’s outer shell is partly made of fatty lipids (a lipid bilayer envelope), and our normal household soap or washing-up liquid has been optimised over centuries to break up fatty lipids. Here’s a great diagram:
Thanks, Andy. That’s just science-y enough, and very helpful.
OK, so, we want to provide a bit more information on receiving and using your Box, based on this research about fomites (and distance, time, and soap).
When You Receive Your Box
All our packaging is either cardboard or brown paper or string, so it’s a pretty safe bet any sign of the virus would have disappeared from those materials in transit. If you are getting a single Box, your Box will also be inside a polythene mail bag. If you’re getting a Large Org kit or extra Boxes, we may have put them in a larger cardboard container. Those bags or boxes are what’ll have been touched last.
As tantalising as it is to open it up and get cracking, we’d suggest you pop your parcel in some kind of no-touch zone, for at *least* 24 hours, maybe even 48 hours. After that time, you should be good to go.
If You Already Have A Box, As You Use Your Box, or Share It With Others
Please be sure to look at keeping things clean as you go, per the following suggestions. Water and electronics don’t mix, so make sure everything is unplugged if you’re cleaning.
Boxes may experience some discoloration if a cleaning solution is too strong.
Avoid wiping the inside of the Box or electronics or inside the power or AUX jacks, but do wipe the volume knob!
Ensure the Box is completely dry before turning it on again.
Cleaning Plywood Boxes
This is harder. The plywood is “raw”, but you could try giving it a careful wipe, as above.
Probably easiest to remove them from circulation, like Dan did at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Cleaning 3D objects
In most cases these are made of PLA (Polylactic acid) so you can also use a diluted disinfectant or soap solution.
Don’t submerge the objects unless they have intricate areas you can’t easily wipe.
The NFC tags adhere well to the objects but may work loose if they’re repeatedly submerged and become damaged, and
Again make sure the objects are dry before using again.
Cleaning 2D postcards
Cards we’ve supplied through a commission, are likely laminated, so will hold up to a wipe.
Uncoated cards or paper may not hold up well to wiping and may cause colours to run.
If you have a laminator to hand laminate away! This will make cleaning with a wet cloth much easier and will extend the life of your cards.
The plastic power plug can also be wiped in the same way but avoid any metal connections and be sure it is completely dry before using again.
Finally, be sure to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. And, please pay attention to the distancing rules in your area. This animation of the exponential-ness of infection in the USA is a good slap:
Making a collection for a Museum in a Box involves a number of different activities: curating a set of objects, writing stories, recording audio, and writing content to the Box. It takes a lot of thought and effort to produce compelling content. With that in mind, we recently started offering Training Day Workshopsin our shop to offer support for those just getting started.
Last week we were delighted to welcome Tracy and Jo from Tees Valley Museums to HQ for a Training Day. They had purchased two Boxes to use as part of their outreach and participation with families in the local area and were looking for specific help with creating and editing great audio.
After welcoming Tracy and Jo at HQ and getting settled we talked about how the Box will be used and what the team have already started doing in preparation for using their Box. They recently bought a Zoom mic and have already been recording children’s responses to objects.
They had also been working on object lists for two different collections so we decided to use those as a springboard. We selected one object from each list that we would use to go through all the steps involved in creating and adding content and connecting it to an NFC sticker.
First we printed out the object images, mounted them on some card and added the stickers. We find this method of creating rough comps really useful as it helps to figure out whether the object and audio in question will work well. We can then make changes and push an idea along much faster.
Next we got the team set up with accounts on our Heart platform, and after a quick look round, set up a collection ready for them to start adding the objects and audio to.
Tracy and Jo didn’t have any experience of using audio editing. At HQ, we use Audacity because it’s free, does everything we need, and is quick to pick up. So after a quick walkthrough, we split into two groups to edit the children’s responses, working through things like trimming, amplifying, and adding sound effects to the tracks.
Below you can see the result of those efforts and hear the wondrous responses to the objects from the visitors! First there’s Jo’s Zebrite Grate Polish card which prompts us to remember that people like museum objects for all kinds of reasons..
and then there’s Tracy’s £5 note with responses about locomotion, George Stephenson, and ‘the biggest five pound note ever!’
It was great to see Tracy and Jo pick up Audacity so quickly, and also how a base level of digital knowledge for a tool can be all you need to get going. Both said how enthused they were to go away and do more audio editing, including with their own children! Audio editing can often seem a scary thing on the surface but once you know the basics it turns into a really creative and fun process!
After editing and exporting our .WAV audio files it was time for Tracy and Jo to upload the content they’d made to the collection on Heart. Watching how users navigate around the site is also really helpful to us as it’s showing us how we can improve it in the future.
With the audio online, we fired up the Boxes and went through the process of adding a new collection to a Box and writing stickers to make them play the right audio. There was a great sense of anticipation and excitement after we had heard the objects booping for the first time, as well as a real sense of achievement all round. All that just in time for our guests to dash off and catch their train back home.
We were delighted to host Tracy and Jo, and learned a lot from it too. We’re able to tailor workshops to your needs, so if you’ve bought a Box or are considering buying one but would like some guidance using it, do get in touch and see if one of our Training Day Workshops is right for you.
All of a sudden, we find ourselves in such strange times. Charlie and I are working from home, but very happy to still fulfill an order for a Box – our online shop is still open, and we hope you’ll consider a purchase to support our tiny business! If you’re stuck at home with your family looking for something to do, what better time to create a family archive!
Friend of MB, Katy Beale, announced this excellent list of resources gathered by her home educators’ network on a (different) Slack network I belong to, and I thought I’d republish here, just in case there are parents out there stuck at home looking for resources.
Put together by the home ed community. feel free to share and use as and when you need it for the coming days and weeks… FREE online education resources
A non-exhaustive list that might help those affected by school closures due to coronavirus, compiled by home educators.
Feel free to share.
Khan Academy https://www.khanacademy.org Especially good for maths and computing for all ages but other subjects at Secondary level. Note this uses the U.S. grade system but it’s mostly common material.
BBC Learning http://www.bbc.co.uk/learning/coursesearch/ This site is old and no longer updated and yet there’s so much still available, from language learning to BBC Bitesize for revision. No TV licence required except for content on BBC iPlayer.
Futurelearn https://www.futurelearn.com Free to access 100s of courses, only pay to upgrade if you need a certificate in your name (own account from age 14+ but younger learners can use a parent account).
Openlearn https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ Free taster courses aimed at those considering Open University but everyone can access it. Adult level, but some e.g. nature and environment courses could well be of interest to young people.
Twelve African heads of state, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, committed last month to “speed up the return of cultural assets” to the continent during the 33rd assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Most of these cultural assets are still held captive by the old colonial powers in Europe. This renewed, high-level interest by African leaders in repatriating objects to their places of origin coincides with intensifying debates within Europe about decolonising museums there.
Britain — consistent in its refusal to return the looted Greek Parthenon Marbles and other items — now faces pressure from the European Union to repatriate the Marbles as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Despite this, a British newspaper saw fit last month to question whether artefacts stolen during the colonial era meet the criteria to be returned to their rightful owners or descendants.
Such deeply embedded reluctance to confront this glaring aspect of Europe’s colonial past is made starker still by French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to facilitate the immediate restitution of African artefacts held in French museums to their original homes in Africa.
As calls to decolonise strengthen worldwide, repatriating artefacts to the people and places they were often brutally taken from is both urgent and complicated. The remarkable work of the Kenya-led International Inventories Programme shows just how hard it is to get European museums to share inventories and details of their collections in the first place. As they argue, people need first to find out what was taken from them.
But getting artefacts back is also just a first step. Returning high-profile pieces is an important part of the decolonisation process — but it doesn’t, on its own, restore control over the history of the artefacts to communities that made and used them. Where colonialism was so pervasive was in its erasure of those histories, rewriting them once the artefacts entered museums. Even now, it’s rarely the people who made and used the artefacts who get to tell their stories and say why they’re important.
What headline-grabbing repatriation cases do not address is how to approach the thousands — in some cases millions — of similar items languishing in museum storerooms: artefacts that colonialists saw value in taken but that aren’t, now, considered valuable enough in European terms to permanently exhibit in museums, yet aren’t being given back either. Beyond the big-ticket items, we need to think about how we rewrite these stories, who it is that gets to tell them, and how.
Technology — ranging from online, open-access museum databases to 3D proxy prints of artefacts — is often touted as the solution to reunite people and objects torn apart during colonialism. But simply handling over images to Google to share far and wide does not solve the problem. Fundamental questions of who designs the databases, and who gets to control the data, reflect entrenched power dynamics that have historically left originating communities on the sidelines of their own history.
These debates about how to deploy new technologies are emblematic of a broader need to upend lingering colonial-style relationships, to shift power to that people can tell their own stories, in their own language, on their own terms.
There are ways, however, to use the power of technology to do just that. The Amagugu Ethu collective in KwaZulu-Natal — an isiZulu-speaking group of artists, a nurse, a writer, an educator, a tour guide, and a sangoma — is attempting that with their Museum in a Box.
Last year, during a visit to Cape Town, the collective identified and recorded stories for the Museum in a Box about Zulu artefacts collected in previous centuries for the country’s oldest museum — now part of the Iziko Museums. In monetary terms, few of the artefacts selected have value. But, for this group, artefacts dismissed by museums as pots, medicine containers, herbs or beadwork — objects chosen in colonial and apartheid days to “prove” how little civilised Africans were — have rich histories and significance that resonate today. What the box does is give space to narrate these unwritten stories on their own terms.
The shoe-box sized museum is, technologically speaking, a simple device centred on a Raspberry Pi — a credit-card sized computer that costs about $70 [South African rand]. Working with near-field communication tags, when a scaled 3D print or photograph of the artefact is placed on the box, it starts to “talk”, giving the object’s oral history through a built-in speaker.
Crucially, for Amagugu Ethu, the voices in the box are Zulu-speaking collaborators. The response to telling and hearing their own stories has been — in the words of Nini Xulu — emotional and affirming.
The collective exhibited the box at various heritage events in September. The aim is to place boxes in museums, schools and libraries across KwaZulu-Natal, and then work on expanding its collection to include Zulu artefacts held by museums across Europe — and beyond.
Being low-cost and portable, the box provides people access in places where internet connectivity is limited and expensive. It is not a substitute for doing the soul-searching political work of repatriating the artefacts; decolonisation is more than repatriation, but cannot happen without it.
What the box may be is a new way of using technology to upend these old power dynamics and ask people to tell their stories, in their own way.
Dr Laura Kate Gibson is a lecturer in the department of digital humanities at King’s College London.