New Commission: The Tower of London for Historic Royal Palaces

Turns out the Tower of London is literally one of the most inaccessible cultural highlights on the planet. That’s because it’s the Tower of London: Fortress, Palace, Prison.

This presents the Community Engagement Team with a particular challenge: how can they help people understand what a visit might be like? Particularly those who are local? Obviously, the Tower is a huge tourism hotspot, but there are also Londoners nearby who have never visited, and are unlikely to because it’s difficult to access, physically, financially, and culturally. Enter our new Collection, developed in partnership with the Community Engagement team at the Tower, and in particular, Jatinder Kailey. We have created a Collection that explores the three historical themes of the Tower, exploring its existence as a fortress, a palace and a prison. We were also able to repurpose quite a bit of audio that the Tower had produced previously for other contexts, which was good.

This is what the postcards look like:

Being an Aussie, I particularly enjoyed contributing research and copywriting for the 18 postcards in the collection, studying a bunch of the stories and characters from within the walls, either living there by choice, duty, or force. As I researched, I learned how many people have had been beheaded there, which gave me an idea for the custom container we built to hold the Box and the Collection. What if the Box looked about the size of a head? Grey on the outside, blood red on the inside!

We enlisted the considerable talents of our Maker of Special Things, Takako, who made a beautiful container fit for a King’s head. We supplemented the Collection postcards with some replica objects, like a giant diamond and a coronation anointing spoon, and wrapped everything in red velvet, which usually makes anything way more fun.

Now, Jatinder is reaching out to local groups in the community to visit them, and share the treasures of the Tower with folks for whom a visit is difficult, and we can’t wait to see the results!

It was also a pleasure to drop it off in person at the Tower. What a thrill.

OFF WITH THEIR HEAD!

Abira Hussein joins the Museum in a Box Advisory Board

We’re thrilled to announce that Abira Hussein has joined the Museum in a Box Advisory Board. 

We first worked with Abira back in 2016, when we assisted in developing the “Healing Through Archives” Collection, which she took around to lots of different community spaces and educational settings. It was a brilliant and fun project, gathering and presenting stories told by older women in London Somali communities, and combining them with photographic, sound and music archives from the British Museum and British Library. It was also really our first foray into the development of a Collection where objects were described by people who had used or experienced them, and described in the ‘mother tongue’ (instead of a Professional Expert). Since then, this work has blossomed into her award-winning NOMAD project, developed in collaboration with Mnemoscene.

Abira is a seasoned public speaker and seasoned academic, now undertaking a PhD at UCL entitled The Archive and The Community: using digital technologies and participatory approaches to co-create new archival spaces and knowledge within Somali communities in Britain. She’s also an Associate Producer at All Change and a Research Associate at Culture& and King’s Digital Lab!

She’ll bring a new dimension to our Advisory Board, thanks to her wide-ranging network, expertise in developing social impact projects, deep familiarity with the UK/EU funding landscape, and her reputation and ability to speak truth to power. 

Abira joins our other fantastic advisors: Gill Wildman, Nick Stanhope, and Ben McGuire.

On the ground at HQ – our 100 Box run is coming together…

It’s been a while in the works, but things are looking very good to build out our biggest run yet: 100 Boxes!

It was our goal this year to figure out how to make 1,000 Boxes, and, well, even though we’ll probably only build 100, that work has allowed us to understand and have a way forward to making Boxes much, much more quickly.

The Skull

Charlie has done the lion’s share of the work associated with making the “skull” or exterior casing of the Box even better. The shape itself has been simplified and optimised so it’s much quicker to assemble. We were lucky enough to have a hardy bunch of volunteers from Verizon Media help us build 100 skulls in a day a few weeks ago. The first time we made skulls, it took about a day to make three.

At the end of the day, you can see 100 skulls made!

The Brain

The Brain is what we’ve always called what’s inside the Box… the electronics. Here is where we’ve done a ton of optimising… and revealing the tech. Before, we would have gathered all the various electronic components from all over the place, from wires to resistors to washers to everything. We assembled them by hand here at HQ.

But now, we have our very own PCB design, largely laid out by Adrian with a few design touches from me, and it’s a thing of beauty, and, importantly, not made by us, but by trained professionals at European Circuits.

George holds the new design in her hands for the first time!

And here’s Charlie turning it on, mere moments ago.

The very best part is that we’re still on our production schedule track to make the 100 Boxes next week, and then SELL THEM ON THE INTERNET.

We have our shop online now, at shop.museuminabox.org, so if you’ve been wanting to buy a Make Your Own kit, or a Museum in a Box tote bag, or even our Greek Gods & Goddesses collection (although you’ll need a Box to play that), now’s your chance!

Be the first to own one of our snazzy tote bags!

We’re changing our name a little bit: Ltd. to C.I.C.

When we formed the company back in October 2015 – four years ago! – we opened up as a stock-standard company limited by shares. It’s something I had done before – in 1998, in Australia – and a system of governance I am much more familiar with than, say, a charity.

Part of our raison d’être was to do good and make money, and we’ve always had a commercial bent, as our few years of successful commissions with our partners attest. We had also – somewhat naïvely in hindsight, I think – presumed that we could join the ranks of those working towards venture capital investment, but that never felt like a good spiritual fit, and I was always discomfited by conversations with finance folk who were pressing us for the now-conventional strategy to scale, scale, scale.

I think this fetishisation of scale is really destructive and actually antithetical to building a real, profitable bricks-and-mortar business. The ease with which one can scale up a software service cannot be mapped on to a business that makes things. But, that’s another blog post for another time.

The official record!

The thing we wanted to tell you is that we’ve become a Community Interest Company. We got the certificate from Companies House this morning.

If you squint at it, it’s basically the same as a company limited by shares, except there’s an asset lock in place (so if we go under, our assets are passed along to another CIC), and our social purpose (getting cultural education into hard-to-reach places) are now enmeshed in the company’s articles of association. Our purpose is also no longer individual shareholder profit (and frankly, it never really has been, actually), but to state that overtly feels good.

We’re very happy to re-emerge as one of about 14,000 Community Interest Companies in the UK. It’s fun to watch the list of last month’s new registrations… feels like the right crowd to mingle with. And let’s just say we’re eating lots of Celebrations at HQ, and a special thank you to Bee Kelly, who’s volunteering with us at the moment, and helped push through the paperwork.

What’s this? A new online shop opening soon?

Yes, that’s right! We’re busily preparing ourselves to sell our new Make Your Own kits online! We hope to open up the shop before the end of the year so we can send out early sales before Christmas. It’s exciting to know that some of the kits are already spoken for – headed for a teachers’ association in Spain, and a museum at Harvard, and more places!

outline of the four kits on offer

There’s more info on our new Make Your Own info page, and if you’d like to be notified when we launch it, please sign up for our newsletter!

WANTED: Django+Shopify Developer (ROCKSTAR WOLF)

Illustration by @ritwells

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN BECOMING OUR ROCKSTAR WOLF. THE POSITION HAS BEEN FILLED.

Location:
Anywhere in the world, collaborating with a UK team (GMT)

Contract:
We are on a tight deadline to deliver our online shop in early/mid November so will consider any working patterns which help us deliver this. Your work to build our online shop will provide the income we need to keep you on!

Deadline:
4 Nov 2019 12:00 GMT


What’s the job?
We are an educational technology social enterprise called Museum in a Box. We bring museum objects and their stories directly into classrooms and into students’ hands anywhere in the world. From Egyptian archeology, transatlantic slavery, to explaining how the justice system works, we work with major insitutions such as the V&A and Smithsonian Institution to bring the curriculum to life. We’re also working on a Make Your Own kit version, too – a method for students (or families or organisations) to create their own collections, learning all sorts of cross-curricular skills as they go, and we’re launching a Shopify presence as soon as we can.

The Box itself is powered by Raspberry Pi, running a Node.js app to manage interactions, media and simple usage data, and we have a working Django web application that already manages users, collections, boxes, and other bits and bobs. We already have users who are making their own collections remotely too.

We are looking for someone who can primarily integrate Shopify with our Django web app.

We are a team of designers and programmers, and a growing crew of freelance creatives. The big gap that this position would fill is bringing two separate services together so Box and Kit sales can be easily managed by staff, and also easily configured by folks buying kits. We expect to do this work manually to begin with, but you can definitely help with that, and hopefully, you’re the type of person who loves throwing great software solutions at tedious manual workflows!

In the role you will:

  • Lead on ensuring Shopify is fully integrated with our existing Django web platform.
  • Add a Django-based user forum to our web platform.
  • Add a short list of new features to our web platform to accommodate group operations and group Box ownership

The ideal candidate will:

  • Be fluent in Django/Python/JavaScript.
  • Have at least three years professional engineering experience.
  • Have programmed a Shopify integration previously, demonstrably.
  • Have worked on a demonstrable web application used by more than 1,000 people. 
  • Have an active Github presence.
  • Enjoy UX filigree, both conception and execution.
  • Likes showing rough working software in progress.

About Museum in a Box Ltd.
We’re a small company based in Hoxton, London. Our mission is to help museums increase access to their collections and help put culture into hard-to-reach places.

We are updating the idea of museum handling collections with 21st Century tools like 3D printing, Raspberry Pi, and great stories combined with multisensory interaction design.

There’s a lot more information on the web:

How to apply
Please send us a one-page cover letter explaining how you meet the role requirements and your resume via email to info@museuminabox.org with the subject ‘Django+Shopify Rockstar Wolf’. Links to online projects/code are expected. We are a small team and cultural fit is very important for us so use your application to help us learn more about your interests, passions and ways of working.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN BECOMING OUR ROCKSTAR WOLF. THE POSITION HAS BEEN FILLED.

New Commission: Amagugu Ethu / Our Treasures

We had a visit from Laura Gibson to our office in Bloomsbury back in May 2017. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend, Rosalind Parker, who was in the same PhD program as Laura, at King’s College London.

Record of Laura’s 2017 visit in our guestbook: “Wonderful idea. I’m already looking forward to working with you. Thank you.”

Laura was then working on her PhD, entitled Decolonising South African Museums in a Digital Age: Re-imagining the Iziko Museums’ Natal Nguni Catalogue and Collection. This was the culmination of many years of interest and work in the South African cultural sector, which began in 2009, when Laura was Assistant Curator at Iziko Museums in Cape Town. Since then, Laura has been back and forth and around KwaZulu-Natal building community, bringing together a team of Zulu community experts around the work of decolonising museum collections. She also recently submitted her thesis over the summer – Yay! – and Dr. Laura Gibson has already won a prestigious award for it, from Universities Antwerpen – double Yay!

Why am I telling you this, you may well ask… Well, it’s because Laura, and her colleague, Hannah Turner from the University of Leicester (now at University of British Columbia iSchool), constructed a brilliant project that we were to become involved in, which has turned out to be a highlight in the life of the company, and the first phase of which has just completed, so we wanted to tell you all about it.

Amagugu Ethu in Cape Town, April 2019

Fast forward to this year, and we find that Laura and Hannah secured funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the University of Leicester Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to bring together a group of nineteen Zulu community experts, anthropologists, scholars, entrepreneurs and museum professionals for a three-day workshop at Iziko Museums in Cape Town, the oldest museum in sub-Saharan Africa.

We were in the group, thrilled beyond measure that Laura and Hannah had designed that a Museum in a Box would be one of their project outputs, ideally to be returned from London (where we made it) to KwaZulu-Natal, so Zulu kids could learn about objects held in colonial museums – not from the museum’s perspective, but the Zulu community experts who selected and described them.

There’s KwaZulu-Natal, and Cape Town.

We assembled from various cities in KwaZulu-Natal, London, Cape Town, and Leicester to descend on Iziko and other venues for a three-day workshop.

Here’s the crew on Day 1 at the museum.

Ostensibly, Charlie and I were there to document everything, taking photographs constantly, and recording audio of the whole event. We were keen that it wasn’t too orchestrated, but that the free-flowing fun conversation and activities were captured live and unfettered. Here’s the outline of the workshop:

Day 1

We met in the morning at the Iziko Social History Centre, and said our hellos and introduced ourselves to each other. I was paired with Mama Nini, who got my measure within about 10 seconds, as we worked through the preset getting-to-know-you questions. “George doesn’t like talking about intimate relationships,” she said. On point. Haha.

Then, the group was able to do one of my very favourite things, which was exploring the museums historical registers, catalogues, and storerooms. Assisted by Iziko staff, Dr. Gerald Klinghardt, Curator of Anthropology, and Lailah Hisham, Collections Manager, we were able to see all sorts of items, with a view to each of the experts selecting one to describe.

In the afternoon, we were able to demonstrate Museum in a Box to the group, and were excited that everyone agreed a Box would be a good thing to produce.

Day 2

The morning began with a tour from Fatima February, Conservator, who explained for the group what happens when an object is acquired by the museum. She had also gathered the objects chosen by participants so we could begin photography.

Next, we visited Lailah’s lair in the Collections Department, surrounded by old card catalogues and accession registers. It was so illuminating at this point to really see first hand how objects collected in colonial times were described. Laura shared a story from her research about a “Zulu” sweat scraper that is sparsely documented on the official catalogue card; however exploring the South African Museum’s archives more thoroughly reveals its disturbing provenance—stolen from the body of a Zulu man killed by the collector’s friend—that is absent from the official record.

In the afternoon, the group worked with ceramicist, Gary Frier, to create visual responses to belongings found in the collection and elsewhere in their lives, and Gary fired the pieces to return to the group once they were ready. The conversation around the making noted that many of the skills needed to make the objects seen the day before in the collection were disappearing, and how great it would be to facilitate makers who still hold those skills to teach and share that knowledge.

Towards the end of the day, the whole group took a trip to Table Mountain, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. That title is not given lightly, and the mountain was truly shining for our visit.

Day 3

We moved venues for the morning, to Rust en Vreugd. The group was facilitated by Mbongeni Nomkonwana and Antonia Porter, and after some fun warm-up exercises, got down to business describing the objects from Iziko the group had selected. Antonia also encouraged everyone to look inwards, and reflect on what the workshop had brought forward for them.

Here’s how Laura described it in her summary of the workshop: “Dr Skhumbuzo Miya shared his concerns about the many powerful belongings held in the Iziko collections, items so powerful they could burn down a house without fire and that are, he believes, stored and treated incorrectly. He asked what reparation process is the museum following to cleanse these items? Later that evening, he stated that he had seen spirits living in hell in the storerooms. Thuli Mtshali likewise expressed regret that many of the stories behind the objects had been lost because apartheid and colonialism allowed people to collect, or steal, things form people without knowing this information that has since been lost. Thulani Thusi and Wilfred Mchunu spoke about the possibilities for collaboration that arose for them during the workshop, a sentiment captured for them by a leaf and feather. Nini Xulu’s plant choice also allowed her to reiterate how important it is that we work together and how beautiful it can be when we do.”

Then it was back to Iziko to do final photography and audio recordings, and we were delighted when Dr Miya played some of his songs for us on guitar!

Bringing it together

We left Cape Town with smiles, three days of audio, and thousands of photographs. It was lovely to revisit the event through these materials. We wanted the collection we developed to represent three things:

  1. The objects selected from the Iziko stores, their catalogue cards (if they existed), and the audio descriptions of each object, as given by one or more of the Zulu community experts
  2. The event itself, because so often this “contextual colour” is completely missing or hard to find in the works and background of events, and the workshop, its participants and its design generated the information and content, and finally
  3. The participants, through their portraits, their voices, and their own introductions (or songs!), since this is almost entirely absent from the official record of colonial museums.

We created three “types” of postcards to represent these three ideas, which were also all translated from English into isiZulu. Look and listen to their audio, too:

Imphepho Object Card

Spear Object Card (note there was no catalogue card for this)

Day 3 Event Card

And a portrait card, depicting Thandi Nxumalo, both with a picture and her voice

September 2019

Last week, Charlie and I were sitting in our office in Hoxton, and photos started coming through on our project WhatsApp, showing the launch party that was going on at Luthuli Museum in Groutville, just north of Durban in KZN. The whole South African crew had gathered to celebrate, and Laura was there too, to hand-deliver the box. It was exciting and brilliant! We are very proud.

We were also thrilled to see two messages from Thulani and Nini…

Colleagues,

I want to thank each one of you for another effort on Amagugu Ethu, our meeting after the launch was a productive one. The people were so amazed about the work of Amagugu and to see the Museum in a Box. The Prince Zulu express his heartfelt gratitude for the work toward conservation of the Zulu objects and he requested that Amagugu should also do awareness programs. All the best to all of us towards what we have discussed today. Dr Gibson and the team in UK indeed we thank you for all you hard work.
– Thulani Thusi

Thanks so much for the Charlie/George Magical Museum in a Box. God bless you with more intellectual technological invocation to share with Africa.
– Nini Xulu

Best wishes from Team KZN received via WhatsApp

If the box wasn’t involved at all in the project, the results would still have been amazing. Power would have moved, would have changed hands. But, we like to think that one thing the Box has helped do is contain it, and perhaps present it more easily.

Thank you to our new friends, Nini, Thandi, Thuli, Wilfred, Dr Miya, Thulani and Boyzie for being fabulous, and we hope to see you again!

“Siyabonga Kathulu Museum in a Box. And this is just the beginning… Amagugu Ethu, South Africa.”

Amandla!

Technology is a tool, not our master

When people see and try a Museum in a Box for the first time, after they’ve been charmed by the magic and wizardry, they’ll often ask how does it work?

Once we start down that line of conversation, it also doesn’t take too long before people ask have you patented this?

The fun part is, we tell people exactly how it works. It’s a combination of Near Field Communication (NFC), a Raspberry Pi, and a few other bits and bobs, which we happily explain.

Illustration of main components, by Charlie Cattel-Killick, February 2018

We’ve also made boxes out of transparent acrylic so you can see exactly how it works. I was chuffed when I handed one of our transparent boxes to my nephew, Alex, and he was able to identify, describe, and connect each of the hardware components into the whole. And I’m not just saying that because he’s family. I was genuinely impressed.

A transparent box alongside one of our early physical prototypes for our new internal layout

In one of our recent commissions, with Monroe County History Center, we loved hearing that they thought a transparent Box in particular would be of interest to their community. The commission was about developing reminiscence collections for folks suffering from dementia and their carers, and quite a few of the men in the programme had an engineering background, so we hoped there’d be interest in the device itself, as well as the 1960s.

We also want to make our design available in an open format so students can literally make their own boxes too. I suspect we’ll end up doing this with one of our early designs which maker spaces or classrooms may have the components to hand to fabricate their own Box. As we’re marching towards higher production volumes, that’s meant developing internals that are much quicker to assemble, and can be made in large volumes. We are developing a Make Your Own kit version this year, so far focussed on the content side of things – like choosing and digitising objects, writing and recording their stories – but we’ve always hoped to extend Make Your Own to include the hardware piece too.

That brings me to our newest design innovation, which relates to our new and improved printed circuit board (PCB). Instead of us hand-crafting the internals – because I should never be making wiring looms! – we’ve now got a super-slick, all-encompassing PCB which incorporates and unifies the amplifier, digital-to-analog audio conversion, power for the Box, our physical progress bar, and allows us to add a real-time clock to help us manage and record when objects are booped.

As Adrian and I chipped away on the PCB layout, I found myself unable to recognise or interpret what all the wiring bits actually were, and needed Adrian to label them for me. Then it dawned on me. Why not label them for everyone? Why not explain transparently exactly what each bit does? So, I designed cheeky labels for each of the main components, so you can familiarise yourself with it all.

Illustrated PCB
Our shiny new annotated PCB!
Blinky lights!!!!

We’ve also redesigned how the Box opens up, to make it easier to pull the guts out and have a look. People – often men, interestingly – tell us “but you could just do this with a phone”, and we nod politely and say yes, you could. But, a) that’s just another screen in your life, b) you can’t just pull your phone apart to understand how it works, c) we want the Box itself to be part of the experience, and d) it is also an educational element of the whole idea.

I’m still not sure if we’ll patent the hardware design, but I at least wanted to establish a state of the art on the annotation-on-the-thing idea with this blog post. That might mean we get totally stiffed by some giant megacorp, which would obviously SUCK, but, I prefer to radiate generous intent.

Quick jot of all the things happening!

We have SO MUCH to tell you. We’re very busy! It’s great! I’ll try to write more to tell you what we’re up to over the summer… Short version:

Our Make Your Own pilot is going strong – it’s taken a little longer than we’d first planned on, but that’s been useful information to take on; that a) it’s not easy or quick to curate a great collection, and b) fitting that in to already busy lives is challenging. But, we have had some brilliant collections come in, like Freakishly Frightening Fungi from Heather in Tasmania (a personal fave), and look at this amazing Ahora hablamos nosotras exhibition built by the pilots at Salnés Campus in Spain! (Read their great blog post about it.)

We’re finishing up four new commissions:

  • Amagugu Ethu (Our Treasures): Charlie and I visited Cape Town with academics, Laura Gibson (King’s College) and Hannah Turner (University of Leicester). Laura, in particular, has been studying the effects of colonisation on communities and museum collections in South Africa, and we were there to participate in a brilliant workshop with KwaZulu-Natal folks Laura had invited into the Iziko Museums to provide new descriptions of objects there.

    Laura, George and Thandi atop Table Mountain!

    There’ll be a Museum in a Box made to represent the workshop travelling back to KZN over the summer.

  • Transatlantic Slavery & Its Contemporary Significance, with the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool (UK): Working with the education team, we’ve developed a Collection to represent key elements of the gallery space, showcasing objects made by African slaves, Liverpool’s history, and contemporary artistic responses to slavery.

    3D model of a bust of Olaudah Equiano
    This is a 3D model we made of a bust of writer and abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano
  • Life & Work at the British Bata Shoe Company, with the Bata Heritage Centre (UK): We’ve had great fun working with writer, Samuel Bailey, and actors Jessica Carroll and Jamie Hinde to bring the East Tilbury Bata factory estate to life. The BHC will use their Box and Collections at local heritage events, and with local school children to help share their local history.
  • #livingwithhistory, A Helper for Dementia Sufferers and their Carers, with Monroe County History Center (USA): The MCHC engaged us to help design a pilot Collection to aid conversation in domestic and community spaces amongst folks suffering from dementia and the people who care for them. In a lovely, collaborative commission, we’ve combined original objects from their collections with photography from the 60s (from open cultural collections, including Flickr Commons, and from institutions like the US National Archives and Library of Congress) into a multi-dimensional set of cards and things to touch and listen to, hopefully stimulating conversation and reminiscence. This type of use of Museum in a Box is regularly suggested by people who try it, so we’re especially interested to see if this sort of collection is useful…
    Here’s a quick video I made of the Monroe County Collection before we post it over to them:

We’re also collaborating with two researchers at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Dr. Abi Glen and Dr. Jennifer Wexler, who were recently awarded Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Economy Engagement fellowships. They are investigating how new interactive digital and physical experiences can attract and develop new audiences in the museum, and we’re happy to be one of the “innovative creative industry partners” who are joining in the fun! If you happen to be near Cambridge on June 3rd, I’ll be giving a short talk that day as part of the conference they’ve organised, called Do Not Touch? 3D in Museums. It’s already been really interesting to see how Dr Glen and Dr Wexler are exploring what Museum in a  Box might do at the University of Cambridge Museums!

All that, and we’re trying to figure out how to make 1,000 boxes. There are about 120 out and about all over the world now, which we’ve largely made by hand. But, we’re happy and a bit daunted that demand is well and truly exceeding supply (700 pre-orders?!?), so now working to meet that demand, including a visit to the amazing Protolabs, where we got to see their amazing injection moulding operation… they could make our boxes much stronger and more quickly, so we’re hoping that comes together! We’ve also entered their “Cool Ideas” competition, and hoping that might result in a subsidy for our first few batches… Wish us luck on that one!

Phew!

Museum in a Box on The Gadget Show!

Georgie from The Gadget Show and Adrian from DoES Liverpool (and Museum in a Box) doing a demo of Museum in a Box
Georgie from The Gadget Show and Adrian from DoES Liverpool (and Museum in a Box) doing a demo

Very excited to see the segment about Liverpool’s awesome maker space, DoES Liverpool, which our superstar hardware engineer, Adrian, co-founded in 2011.

We get a little mention on Episode 5 of Season 29 of The Gadget Show at about 38:50 in, and proud that Georgie mentioned that the prototype has “now become a full-blown commercial product”! Woo hoo!