Categories
company news

Thriving in uncertainty

We have news. We are going to enter a new phase as a company – to lie fallow. 

The last three months have been very difficult for us. We have only survived this long thanks to government subsidies. 95% of museums have closed, schools and teaching akimbo. The cultural sector is in survival mode and it’s not at all clear how long this will last. So, we’re going to shrink our operations to conserve energy, and we’ve laid out the plan below.

If you have questions about this or if you’d been thinking of doing a big project with us, please get in touchWe’re hoping existing customers won’t notice, but we’re trying to let everyone know.

You might think we offer a great fit for the scenario where physical visits to museums are not possible. We think that too, and hope museums who have considered using Museum in a Box for their outreach will still consider doing that. The thing is though, for now, we cannot afford to wait out the survival mode in our current configuration. The company has happily skated along so far by its bootstraps, but that meant we were immediately vulnerable when the virus arrived and the world was turned upside down. We must conserve energy instead. 

We have a strong foundation. We know how to make boxes efficiently, even if it’s done in a front room in London for now. We have a working web platform that’s basic, but gets the job done. We are practiced at opportunistic iterative software improvement and will take any chance we get to bring in a freelance developer to help on that. We have a great network of writers, actors, and producers who we can call on if/when a commission comes around. This is all good.

Our Plan

  • Our online shop will stay open. You can still purchase a Make Your Own kit. We have 16 15 boxes left in the current 100-box batch at time of writing. We hope to arrange the next 100 boxes, but it will require a capital outlay, so needs to be carefully considered. Making boxes is the part of the business we can control.
  • Our “Heart” platform will stay online. We acknowledge this approach will mean development on the platform will lag.
  • We will still hang out on Slack, tweet cool things when we see them, and send occasional proof of life newsletters too.
  • The team will seek other work. We’re not sure how this will play out, but we are committed to this plan even if the pace slows because we shrink to one person in a front room working on it when she can.
  • For existing customers, I will happily provide customer support, and will respond to general enquiries, though I might need a bit more time to get back to you. (Imagine a kooky museum only open on Tuesday afternoons?)

We don’t want to cease trading. This is a protective, positive plan for the next stage of Museum in a Box while the market is well beyond our control. We plan to assess our status in detail every three months, and plan to be fallow for 12 months and then reassess, unless a project comes along we can take on without sacrificing stability. If you have been considering a partnership with us, do please get in touch. We will consider all possible projects – especially if you have already secured funding. At the very least we will make a note that you’d like to work with us for the future. 

Our thinking on this has been inspired by Thriving in Uncertainty, written in what seems like an age ago – 2015. This analogy of ‘lying fallow’ is useful: an intentional phase where new initiatives are deliberately not started but we restore our strength instead, and avoid surplus spending. It is intended as a quiet, hand-crafted, restorative phase, that helps us find personal stability elsewhere, at the moment. It will be interesting and helpful to reduce our costs deliberately. We’ve never tried doing that actively before, perhaps because we’re geeks and dreamers, not MBAs?! As we sell Make Your Own kits during this period, we aim to build up capital, putting us in a good position to realign when the world rights itself. 

Thank you kindly to Charlie Cattel-Killick and Adrian McEwen, and advisors Gill Wildman, Abira Hussein, Tom Flynn, Ben McGuire, and Matt Webb, who have helped me think through this phase change.

Categories
exhibition myomb

People are Making Their Own

Guest post by Rob Sherman about how people are using their Make Your Own kit. Thanks, Rob!

It’s safe to say that all of us have a lot more time on our hands, at the moment, than we did two months ago. Long-neglected musical instruments are being dusted off and plucked or parped, and a lot of slightly-disappointing sourdough is being baked. In the midst of a grim global situation, people are trying to keep themselves busy, learn something new, and be as creative as possible.

Unsurprisingly, the Museum in a Box community has been turning out hundreds of collections on every subject under the sun. Some of these collections, created by museum professionals, reveal the secrets of the objects in their care: others catalogue the world around their authors in meticulous, loving detail. Under our current, constrained circumstances, the Museum in a Box is coming into its own as a study tool, personal diary and storytelling device; and we wanted to highlight some of the strangest, sweetest and more scintillating collections available on the platform at the moment. 

Ancient Worlds by AHR

Holly, eleven years old, won’t let a little lockdown get in the way of her interest in ancient history. Each object in her collection, Ancient Worlds, focuses on a different object from Greek or Roman history, accompanied by Holly’s evocative storytelling. Listen to her own version of the story of Herakles and the Hydra, and a very convincing impression of a Roman toothache.

A Box Of Noises by renata

Trapped in our homes and twiddling our thumbs, some of us are starting to pay long-overdue attention to the little details of our surroundings, finding beauty and complexity wherever we can. Renata’s collection, A Box Of Noises, takes simple domestic sounds and turns them into something close to music. Paired with her delicate line illustrations, you’ll be surprised that a piece called Faucet in Three Acts could be so captivating.

Climate Change Effects by IES A Basella

Produced by students at the IES A Basella secondary school in Galicia, Spain, these cards helped classes to categorise and understand the interwoven consequences of climate change over the past century. When you place the stark images of flooded streets and raging wildfires on a Box, you hear the students tell you, in their own words, what awaits our planet if things do not change for the better. There is a version of this collection in both English and Spanish, and the collection is still being used in the school to help new classes understand the Museum in a Box format, and produce their own collections.

Listening to the Earth by Hannah Turner

This is the final exhibit and online repository for the course, LIBR 588: Theory and Practice of Oral History, in the School of Information at the University of British Columbia. The title of this exhibit, “Listening to the Earth” is a call to answer the question: “How might we preserve stories about organisms for future generations?”. Students in the course interviewed nine experts and scientists and asked them about their favourite organisms.

Hiragana by Takako Copeland

Despite the lure of Netflix and the fridge, some of us want to try and use these idle months a little more constructively. If you’re looking to learn a new language in an accessible and manageable way, Takako Copeland’s collection provides a satisfying and tactile method for learning the hiragana syllabary, a major component of written Japanese. Each card in the collection, illustrated with a hiragana character and an object whose name in Japanese includes that character, is paired with Takako speaking the character and the word aloud. With the cards spread out in front of you or held in your hands, and guided by Takako’s patient voice, there is not a better introduction to the Japanese language out there.

Great Bums Of History by George Oates

With most of the great works of art furloughed behind the closed doors of the big galleries, Museum in a Box’s own George Oates has selflessly created a collection that allows you to experience some of the very greatest up close, and from surprising new angles. Some might say a little too close, and from entirely unnecessary angles, but let it not be said that we aren’t doing our bit for home education. We won’t spoil this collection’s surprise, but it’s safe to say that it is a… multi-sensory experience.

Categories
company news competition museum

WE WANT YOU!

Thank you for your interest. Registration has now closed.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, our work feels unexpectedly relevant. Parents, educators and housebound individuals across the globe are looking for new and exciting ways to engage with cultural heritage from home. 

We want to work with cultural institutions both small and large to open up their collections, and find novel ways to engage with their audiences (and create new ones!) during these ‘strange times’.

In particular, we are seeking UK museum partners to apply with us to the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund. This fund, of up to £30,000 and due 26th May 2020, is for innovative projects that ‘think about experimental or innovative interventions with collections online’.

  • (This is where the link to the registration form was, but we’ve now closed registration.)

Our proposal is to help you make a Museum in a Box collection that can live digitally on our web platform, and also offer the option to make a physical version of it that people can have delivered to their homes (with a Box). We hope to work with a wide range of UK institutions.

What’s the plan?

Ok. You’re interested. Great! You must be wondering what will happen next.

How would I make a collection?

It’s easy! Museum in a Box lives digitally on our web platform, which we call Heart. Initially designed and built as a tool for managing collections and objects and audio, it’s transforming into a place where people can also consume those collections. 

For the purposes of being a collection maker and partner on the Esmee bid, Heart is where you would create a new collection, give it a simple description, and add your photos, hi-res files, and audio stories. 

Elements of a Museum in a Box collection

Your collection is made of three main elements:

  1. The collection outline or description;
  2. The objects;
  3. Each object’s content assets: this includes the audio track for the object, a photograph for the web platform, and the assets that will be used to make the physical object itself: this could be a PDF of a postcard design, or a 3D model.

There is no limit to how many collections you can create, but we do have some recommendations about size and scope, based on our experience. 

We recommend:

  • Nine objects in a collection (but they can be 3D, 2D or a mix of both);
  • Audio stories that are about a minute long (that’s about 150 written words).

We’ve designed these recommendations to help you hold people’s attention, making collections easy to consume in one sitting. We also think it’s really beneficial to have such a tight constraint on scope. That way, you really have to think carefully about which objects tell the right story, and what you have to cull from your story so that it’s concise and compelling.

Licensing

You can assign a license to each individual element of a collection: for example, you could use an image from an online repository like The Met, which has placed their digital image assets in the public domain, and create your own audio story. You can attach that same public domain mark to your image (and attribute it with a credit line and a link back to the source, although you don’t have to), and then mark your own audio track with a separate license. 

When you sign up for an account on Heart, you should know that you’re taking full responsibility for the content you upload, and ensuring you have the right to use it.

Publishing

We would love to help distribute your collection to the network of Boxes across the world. We have a Box on every continent except Antarctica now, and the network is always growing.

You have four options for publishing your collection, once it’s on Heart:

  1. Set your licenses to anything other than full copyright. Then the collection can be consumed digitally, via the website, by anyone. Lots of our “Make Your Own” collections already fall into this category, like Vaguely Mystical Objects I Have at Home.
  1. Mark your content as copyrighted. People will be able to see that the collection exists, but only you will be able to hear the audio stories, and only you will be able to add them to your Box, if you have one. You may want to do this if your collection isn’t quite ready for public consumption, or you are just tinkering around for the moment.
  1. Work with us to create a physical version of your collection for sale. If you mark your content as copyrighted (as above), you can speak to us about creating a version of your collection that people can buy from our online shop. Firstly, we’ll send you a royalty agreement, and if we all agree on the terms, we’ll work with you to get the physical version designed and ready to distribution!  You will be paid the agreed percentage of any sales on a quarterly basis.
  1. Donate your collection. If you follow the steps in (2) and (3), but choose to forgo the royalty arrangement, we will be able to offer your collection in our shop, for digital and physical distribution, at a much lower cost to Box owners all over the world. 

While there are many collections on Heart made by ordinary people, for free, all around the world, we have also produced our own collection with professional voice actors and sound effects, to help you see the potential of the platform. Using public domain images from the Rijksmuseum collection, we’ve produced a collection called Greek Gods & Goddesses, where each Olympian god will tell you their own story in their own words. The cards also work as ‘Top Trumps’, allowing you to pit the different characters against each other.

Interested? And you’re working at a UK Museum?

  • (This is where the link to the registration form was, but we’ve now closed registration.)

Categories
research

Telling our stories of COVID-19

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.

If you know of a project like this, please feel free to add an entry to the Google spreadsheet we’ve opened to gather links.

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.

In my early research, I also stumbled on the World Health Organisation’s oral history archive, which I may have a poke at as we all wait.

Categories
design education research

Tortoise, not hare: taking care developing our #homeEd approach

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.

You can review the call agenda (and my notes in the doc) if you have all the time in the world. And anyone using that link can add a comment – please do if you have something to add!

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:

  1. Tell and record your family’s history, or
  2. 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!

Read more about Telling Our Stories of COVID-19?

Get involved?

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.

Categories
education get help packaging

Museum in a Box Handling During a Global Pandemic

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:

Distance 

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. 

Time

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. 

You can read Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2
as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
in the New England Journal of Medicine if you wish, and there are also lots of  media reports floating around, and I have summarized their findings below:

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. 

Soap

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:

Why soap works against the coronavirus

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.

Cleaning Acrylic Boxes

  1. Wear gloves. 
  2. Use a diluted disinfectant or watery soap solution and a damp-but-not-wet cloth to wipe down the Box. (Why is soap better than bleach?)
    1. Boxes may experience some discoloration if a cleaning solution is too strong. 
  3. Avoid wiping the inside of the Box or electronics or inside the power or AUX jacks, but do wipe the volume knob! 
  4. Ensure the Box is completely dry before turning it on again. 

Cleaning Plywood Boxes

  1. This is harder. The plywood is “raw”, but you could try giving it a careful wipe, as above.
  2. Probably easiest to remove them from circulation, like Dan did at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Cleaning 3D objects

  1. In most cases these are made of PLA (Polylactic acid) so you can also use a diluted disinfectant or soap solution. 
  2. Don’t submerge the objects unless they have intricate areas you can’t easily wipe. 
  3. The NFC tags adhere well to the objects but may work loose if they’re repeatedly submerged and become damaged, and
  4. Again make sure the objects are dry before using again. 

Cleaning 2D postcards

  1. Cards we’ve supplied through a commission, are likely laminated, so will hold up to a wipe. 
  2. Uncoated cards or paper may not hold up well to wiping and may cause colours to run. 
  3. 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:


Watch How The Coronavirus Spread Across the United States
on The New York Times website, 22 March 2020

Good luck.

Categories
education

Free online education resources for homeschooling

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.

:heartpulse:

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).

Seneca
https://www.senecalearning.com
For those revising at GCSE or A level. Tons of free revision content. Paid access to higher level material.

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.

Blockly
https://blockly.games
Learn computer programming skills – fun and free.

Scratch
https://scratch.mit.edu/explore/projects/games/
Creative computer programming

TED Ed
https://ed.ted.com
All sorts of engaging educational videos

National Geographic Kids
https://www.natgeokids.com/uk/
Activities and quizzes for younger kids.

Duolingo
https://www.duolingo.com
Learn languages for free. Web or app.

Mystery Science
https://mysteryscience.com
Free science lessons

The Kids Should See This
https://thekidshouldseethis.com
Wide range of cool educational videos

Crash Course
https://thecrashcourse.com
You Tube videos on many subjects

Crash Course Kids
https://m.youtube.com/user/crashcoursekids
As above for a younger audience

Crest Awards
https://www.crestawards.org
Science awards you can complete from home.

iDEA Awards
https://idea.org.uk
Digital enterprise award scheme you can complete online.

Paw Print Badges
https://www.pawprintbadges.co.uk
Free challenge packs and other downloads. Many activities can be completed indoors. Badges cost but are optional.

Tinkercad
https://www.tinkercad.com
All kinds of making.

Prodigy Maths
https://www.prodigygame.com
Is in U.S. grades, but good for UK Primary age.

Cbeebies Radio
https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/radio
Listening activities for the younger ones.

Nature Detectives
https://naturedetectives.woodlandtrust.org.uk/naturedetectives/
A lot of these can be done in a garden, or if you can get to a remote forest location!

British Council
https://www.britishcouncil.org/school-resources/find
Resources for English language learning

Twinkl
https://www.twinkl.co.uk
This is more for printouts, and usually at a fee, but they are offering a month of free access to parents in the event of school closures.

Toy Theater
https://toytheater.com/
Educational online games

DK Find Out
https://www.dkfindout.com/uk/?fbclid=IwAR2wJdpSJSeITf4do6aPhff8A3tAktnmpaxqZbkgudD49l71ep8-sjXmrac
Activities and quizzes

The Imagination Tree
https://theimaginationtree.com
Creative art and craft activities for the very youngest.

Red Ted Art
https://www.redtedart.com
Easy arts and crafts for little ones

The Artful Parent
https://www.facebook.com/artfulparent/
Good, free art activities

Blue Peter Badges
https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbbc/joinin/about-blue-peter-badges
If you have a stamp and a nearby post box.

Geography Games
https://world-geography-games.com/world.html
Geography gaming!

Big History Project
https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home
Aimed at Secondary age. Multi disciplinary activities.

Oxford Owl for Home
https://www.oxfordowl.co.uk/for-home/
Lots of free resources for Primary age

Categories
company news press

Museum in a Box tells our stories

As efforts to repatriate Africa’s artefacts continue, a Zulu collective has hit upon a digital solution.

BY LAURA GIBSON
Article on mg.co.za
(Links here added by the Museum in a Box team.)


Page 16 of the Mail & Guardian, March 13 to 19 2020

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.

Nini Xulu

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.

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get help myomb

Help Video: Opening the Box

Now that we have a proper online shop, it’s time to get (more) serious about our customer care and help resources. Combine that with our new “deep work” afternoon practice, where we turn off the internet and do work we can really think about properly, we’ll be making a bunch of How To videos to help people out there in the wild look after their Boxes.

Here’s the first one, Opening the Box:

There’s also an FAQ page on our “Heart” website (the web platform where all the Collections live), and we have a public Museum in a Box Slack anyone can join, with a #get-help channel.

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archive company news design

Hardware History

This week at HQ, we’ve started doing something called “deep work”. The people at Do Lectures, whose book we’re reading this month about writing good email newsletters, recommend it as a way to not be distracted by all the things that pop up in our lives now thanks to our phones and the web and all that. It’s good! We’re going to persist.

Our deep work mechanics at this stage are that I’ve set an alarm on my phone that goes off at 2pm, and again at 5pm, and in that window, we try not to use our phones and turn off the WiFi on our laptops.

One of the main jobs we have at the moment is to think more about sales and marketing. We haven’t especially done any yet, apart from talking about our work to people who mostly already know us, so we’d like to broaden our audience a bit – hence reading about writing better newsletters. Would you like to sign up for our newsletter? We thought we’d start with our homepage, which hasn’t been changed since we wrote it, really, back in 2016. (Not proud of that!). So, we’re working on that.

During that exercise, we were flung off into a lovely exercise of pulling things off our shelves, and arranging it — or knolling it — on our big work table. It was really satisfying to see how Museum in a Box has evolved.

Here’s a wobbly panorama of the whole scene to start with. Packaging, Box inserts, the Box and its various design branches, the “brain” which is all the hardware/software inside, our progress bar, and the sound elements, from volume knob selection to amplifier design.
You can see the Box insert cards, from the very first idea of a scribbled “Updates” card, to our current TRY ME! cards, which give people who’ve bought a Make Your Own kit something to play before they’ve finished their collections.
These are the various elements of the “brain”. From earliest at the top, to most recent at the bottom. Exciting to see Adrian’s very first comp of our physical progress bar, which we developed because the Box took about 30 seconds to start up. Now it takes about 12 seconds!
And finally, we have about ten hardware versions we consider to be major milestones in the design. It’s not quite Dyson’s 5,000 iterations, but we aren’t as rich as him, so, there’s that. It’s still really satisfying to track the design evolution and how we’ve continually synthesised feedback and technical considerations.

We’ve parcelled all the iterations up into their own labelled boxes on the shelves instead of them being all over the place, which I find comforting.

Possibly the best bit is that Charlie’s also made an awesome 3D model of the table with all the bits and bobs on it!