Version 2 of this post, published Mon 18 October, 2021: Crisis averted! We’ve fixed the really big problem by creating a DNS-level with an alternate encryption certificate already living on the Raspberry Pi inside our Boxes. So, it’s the kind of fix people who haven’t read any of this will even have noticed.
And here’s a gentle reminder to do an update of your Boxes from time to time so you can keep up to date with improvements we’re making to the software. Version 1.2 is coming up, which will have improvements to the way the Box reports boops to include the ones that happen when your Box isn’t on WiFi. Once you do updates after your Box is on V1.2, any offline boops will get sent back to HQ for inclusion in the boop log.
Version 1 of this post, published Wed 13 October, 2021: Something has changed in a third-party service that’s affected all our Boxes which use a protocol called HTTPS to securely connect to Heart, our web platform. We’re sorry to report that a ‘root certificate’ that ensures this secure HTTPS connection has expired. This means Boxes out in the world cannot currently connect to Heart and therefore cannot get updates to collections or write stickers. Any content already loaded on Boxes will work without issue.
This is obviously verybad and we’re working on what we can do about it. (This is in addition to waiting for the global chip shortage to sort itself out so we can get on with Batch No. 3.)
Heart – this is the name of our in-house web platform where you can see collections, boxes, and boops. Anyone with a Museum in a Box can create an account on Heart to manage their Boxes and collections.
“Let’s Encrypt” – is a free, automated, and open certificate authority brought to you by the nonprofit Internet Security Research Group (ISRG).
How does a Box use HTTPS?
Most websites these days use HTTPS to make sure all the traffic between your computer and the website is encrypted and secure. Your Museum in a Box is no different, so whenever it has to talk to our Heart platform it uses the same approach.
This encryption is done by both sides—the Box and Heart—agreeing on a set of secret keys each time the Box needs to connect to Heart. They use the agreed-upon keys to encrypt messages back and forth, so anyone who manages to intercept the messages won’t understand them.
There’s a second level of protection called certificates. Certificates are needed because there’s a chance that even as the Box is carefully encrypting messages for Heart using HTTPS they could still be decoded by someone impersonating Heart. To prevent this impersonator service reading messages, HTTPS adds certificates, which are digitally signed by a trusted third-party to verify a website is who it says it is. The Box uses the certificate to see that it really is talking to Heart before it shares any keys.
Who is the “trusted third-party?” Our certificates are signed by Let’s Encrypt. In turn, their certificates are signed by Digital Signature Trust. The certificate that Digital Signature Trust used to sign those is called a “root certificate”, because it’s at the end of the chain. The root certificates are ones that your web browser or operating system chose to trust and were installed at the same time as the software.
How do encryption certificates work?
Certificates have two parts:
a public part, which is what we’ve been talking about so far and can be shared with anyone and everyone; and
a private part, which is used in the signing process and must be kept safe on the website and not shared with anyone.
Given there’s a chance that the private part of a certificate might get leaked or stolen certificates also have an expiry date. That means that any compromised certificates will only cause problems until they run out.
Normal website certificates tend to have quite short lifespans. The Let’s Encrypt certificates that we use for Heart, for example, only last three months.
Root certificates tend to have much longer life spans because updating them is harder—the replacement certificates need to be shared to all the computers that might connect to the website, or, in our case, all the Boxes. These root certificates do expire, and the root certificate that signs all the Let’s Encrypt certificates we use expired at the end of September 2021.
How does this affect anyone with a Box?
Until we get a fix in place, all the Boxes out in the world will refuse to talk to Heart. That means it isn’t possible to write new stickers, or add or update any of the content on the Box. Any content already on a Box or stickers already written will continue to work just fine.
This is obviously very bad.
We’re working on a fix for the problem and will post updates here and probably on Twitter. In the meantime, if you have any questions, do please get in touch. Here’s an invitation link to join our Slack and there’s a channel in there called #get-help we’ll be updating in, or you’re welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you prefer.
“On 15 February 1971 Britain changed over from the centuries old system of pounds, shillings and pence to a new currency based on 100 pennies to the pound. This change affected the entire nation, bringing people together as they learnt to master a new way of valuing everything.”
We were first contacted by Amy Williams back in the Great Before. She’s the Education and Learning Manager at the Mint Museum. They were keen to make a big splash nationally to celebrate the transition to decimal currency. We concocted an ambitious plan to thing big and figure out what it might mean to send Boxes to schools all over the nation. Museum in a Box contributed to a Mint grant application then held our breath. Unfortunately, when Covid hit, the granting body hit pause on that funding stream and went into emergency mode. Even after that challenging news, the Mint team let us know they still wanted to go ahead at whatever scale would work once the Covid dust settled a bit. As a company, we were coming to the end of Batch No. 1, which was a big “what should we do?” moment. The Museum swept up the last five Boxes in that batch, and let us know they wanted to go large and expand their “flock” if/when we decided to make Batch No. 2. This was so encouraging and exciting, and ultimately, what we needed to commit to Batch No. 2.
We also faced schools in Wales and across the UK opening / closing / opening / closing, so the museum decided to shift their outreach focus to reminiscence sessions with their older audience.
What’s that in old money?
The first step in any commission or Make Your Own project is to figure out which objects to include in your collection. How do they hang together, and what do you want to say about each thing?
I called on Rob Sherman to bring the collection to life. We’ve worked with Rob before, on our Greek Gods & Goddesses collection, and with the National Justice Museum’s Creative Courtroom commission. Rob’s a pleasure to work with, and is a bit of nerd which fits this realm. It was he who introduced me to what a tannoy is, and I am forever grateful, because that’s worth at least 10 points in Words With Friends, which I’ve been playing a lot of.
Bethan Clark, (former) Public Engagement and Information Officer at the museum, assembled our draft list of original objects and photography for the collection, and the museum team edited it down to our recommended size of nine things. Together, we decided to place a young woman named Linda Thomas at the centre of each the object’s story. She was living in Llantrisant when the Mint moved there from London, and had witnessed decimalisation first hand with her young family. Rob crafted nine episodes of her life to accompany each object, from helping a customer in the department store where Linda worked do a conversion to worrying about her grandad and how he’d cope with the new money.
Once the stories were ready, we found actor and singer Ceri Ann Gregory to bring Linda to life, and had a great afternoon recording Rob’s scripts via three different locations with our friends at The Voiceover Gallery. Once the raw scripts were recorded, Rob and I – mainly Rob! – figured out the soundscape for each track to make the stories more rounded and evocative. Coins clinking, a rugby match, brass band, Welsh men’s choir (obvs), and other bits and bobs really make the audio rich. Here’s a sample for you – this is a shot from my dining room table, where the collection first sprang to life as all the pieces came together for the first time:
In the meantime, the museum was keen to order more Boxes. First, we thought another 15, and then – whoa! – another 25! That’s a flock of 45 Boxes; the biggest deployment to a single organisation we’ve ever done. Bethan James, Project Officer, has been super to work with figuring out logistics of delivering this sort of scale from our front rooms to Llantrisant. The museum also chose to order custom boxes to hold the collection, which has meant that Takako Copeland, our Maker of Special Things, has been very busy over the Christmas period and into January making 45 beautiful, sturdy, purple containers for each of the loan boxes. They are beautiful.
The museum has just sent out its first five boxes, and is maintaining a map of where they’re going, which I’ve embedded here:
This is our second reminiscence project commission, alongside the Monroe Country History 1960s reminiscence program, and joins several other loan box programs likeTraveling Trunks @ Smithsonian, Barnsley Museums, Tees Valley Museums, and Jewish Museum London, and soon, UMass Amherst.
On a personal note, it’s extremely gratifying that we can deliver at this scale, and I especially want to thank Adrian, Takako, and Jenn for jumping on board to work with me to do it. There is still availability in our official Batch No. 2 – there are just over 30 boxes left. This major commission has meant the batch is selling much faster than we’d thought, but, what a great thing! Those 30 remaining boxes could become Little Kits, or Big Kits (3 boxes per), or delivered as part of a larger commission, like the Royal Mint Museum’s Decimalisation Reminiscence program.
The daffodils are starting to spring up around London. The sky is grey, and the wind is whipping the budding trees about. In this odd, wintry January I’m so pleased to be able to share this slightly stealthily-made new commission. What a boon!
I’m so happy to tell you that we’re nearly at the point where we can finally complete construction of our first blob of orders for Batch No. 2.
It’s been a bumpy, frustrating, and occasionally dispiriting ride to get to this point. I can’t decide if I want to bore you with supply chain issues minutiae or not. Suffice it to say: after deciding to go for it back in September, it’s only now, tomorrow, if all goes as planned and replanned and then replanned again, that we will finally have all the bits and bobs in my front room that we need.
Things we’ve learned:
Buying electronics from China on AliExpress is a big risk. 84% of the parts we bought from one supplier were duds.
Testing components before you put them inside bigger things is essential. You waste tons of time if you don’t do this.
Working with suppliers you can develop relationships with is always best. Our friends at European Circuits made a mistake with our LEDs, but fixed them all in record time.
Thank you also to our very patient customers, who’ve received Yet Another Email From A Company Who’s Been Stuffed By COVID, and have not complained, but told me it’s OK they’ll wait even though they’re a bit disappointed. You, my lovely friendly people, will be getting a special treat in your orders for being good to us.
I’d also like to introduce you to my friend and co-box maker, Jenn Phillips-Bacher, who is joining the team to do something completely different, and help me make Boxes and send them out. Thank you, Jenn, and welcome to the crew. This step, of being able to have someone else fulfil orders, is an important one, I think. It means the company might just be sustainable, if a bit fragile. I’m looking forward to the next couple of training days with Jenn. She’s a smart cookie and like making things, so I reckon it’ll be a snap.
If you’d like a piece of Batch No. 2, please feel free to give Jenn some work to do over the holidays, via our online shop.
Huh. Back in the Great Yesterday (July 1st, 2020) I wrote here that we were changing our pace, to thrive in uncertainty. COVID-19 had simply smashed us against the cliffs, and we were broken. Lying fallow, I called it, to sound constructive.
Our plan was to cut our costs, keep the online shop open, and sell Make Your Own kits until we cleared our inventory, our Batch No. 1. Expend as little energy and resource as possible, but keep a tiny bit of skin in the game, and breathe very slowly.
Well, boom! Now we’ve gone and sold out of Batch No. 1, quite a bit more quickly than we’d though we would! Yay, and yikes!
The good news is, those sales helped us gather the funds we need to put together Batch No. 2, and that’s what we’ve decided to do. I’m not sure why I keep saying “we”. It’s mostly just me now. Charlie has flown the coop, and found another job — praise be — and Adrian still chips in when he can with the odd bit of laser cutting or tweaks to PCB layouts. I’ve migrated the company to my front room, and I’m actually quite warming to the idea of “front-room manufacturing” and “artisanal on-demand”, which is what we’ll likely be as we put together Batch No. 2.
That’ll be the next 100 Boxes. I’ve decided to reduce the product offering a bit, so now we’re selling three Kits: the Little Kit, the Little Kit for Educators, and the Big Kit. We’re going to provide plywood, transparent, yellow, and black Boxes (and not blue or pink), since they were more popular.
What we are not going to do is chase windmills. We are not going to dream of The Big Mythical Partner who wants four million Boxes to fly to kiddies all across the world to provide the best cultural education object-based learning, IoT, 3D prints and great stories can buy. We will not do that because that is death by a thousand cuts.
It remains a superb time to try out a Kit – our last Boxes were sent to Nebraska, Lincolnshire, Sudbury, and Berlin, to be used both in-house and reaching out, for personal music projects, teaching kids about STEM, recounting tales of flying bombers (which is a work in progress), or playing with the fantastic stories we produced about the Greek Gods & Goddesses.
So, there you go. Head first into our present, shared abyss, and here’s to it!
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 touch. We’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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
(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:
The collection outline or description;
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Hello! My name is Renata and I started volunteering with Museum in a Box just a few weeks before this little world of ours closed for maintenance.
Starting at Museum in a Box
I started by reaching out to HQ to know a little more about Museum in a Box, and the work that the team was doing in that funky intersection where museum collections, playful education and mixed media hang out. It felt like such a malleable and imaginative idea, like the plasticine of museums. I thought it would be really cool to learn from a project working on how museum content and practices are experienced, made less formal, and shared broadly, and was particularly curious about how sound design and recording enables that.
After meeting George, Charlie and the beauty that is the HQ maker space, I got inexplicably excited about an idea that George mentioned – a collection of everyday noises. I really wanted to be a little part of it, and was immediately so happy to join. I think I found putting together a bunch of noises—something that can intuitively feel so meaningless—making them informative and joyous in their own understated ways to be a fun twist on what we believe museums to be. The idea of creating something with sound as its own nucleus and lowering the threshold for collecting things / making things / being excited about things were simply energising ideas to me.
(Also there was some excellent homemade ginger cake. What’s not to love?)
Why museums and sound?
I love museums as spaces of shared information. It’s really exciting to see how we collect objects: how we think about different materials and shapes and colours and functions, how we celebrate and exhibit objects with different levels of domesticity, the public and the private, the meeting points between intimacy and belonging. It’s a kind of topography almost, all things elevated and grounded, and the energy of both co-existing. Not making the ordinary any more extraordinary, but instead looking after it as its own enriched thing precisely because it is someone’s. Or trying to make sense of that either/or space where things live outside categories. Or when collections go ‘hey, let’s not exist inside a museum, but be somewhere else instead’. I like all of it.
Part of this was growing more and more curious about sound and how it is a portable, shareable, weightless container for information, storytelling, and textures. How sound can be something so familiar and modular, like words and noises in our homes, or something so new and informative, like music and signals from outer space or soundscapes from places we haven’t visited. And at a time like this, where physicality and presence are taking different forms, sound has been everywhere for me – objects that make sound and objects that carry sound, the sounds from the outside like little portals, the sounds and echoes of places we want to return to. I even found myself thinking about how different museum galleries sound, how each has its own base silence. Maybe I’ll make a collection about that?
Making a first collection
I had the joy of putting together a little Box of Noises, recording a few comforting / frustrating sounds at home, and thinking about what I found meaningful about them – the urgency, the softness, the cadence, my lack of descriptive sonic lexicon to precisely talk about each of those samples and resorting to comparisons and other senses to help me through. Got to love a bit of synaesthesia!
I learned a few things along the way, which I share with you now. I hope they can help you create your first collection too:
1.Accumulating a lot of samples will probably happen
Hopefully that means you’re enjoying the collection process! For me it was like suddenly I had created a radar for myself – every noise became a discoverable, recordable, at least marginally interesting sound. As simple as this might sound, even the really mundane objects became producers of sound.
I ended up running to my phone a few times to record the sound of something impermanent, re-enacting dish stacking and testing the same bag zipper going up and down an embarrassing number of times. The fact that I was collecting stuff had this almost activation energy about it.
2.Devise a system of organisation / archiving that works for you
This may or may not be your jam, but I found having a dual system really helpful – a manual and a digital one.
Fig.1 – My first plan for the collection: a piece of paper with a speculative list of noises I thought to collect and a grid to help me visualise where to place each illustration. The back of that page had my shopping list for that week. The spreadsheet is my final database of noises, including the room where they were recorded, the number of version for each sound, and the different colours which refer to different collection ideas, placing each sample into one or more collection it could live in. The orange ones made my final selection, with purple and green indicating a strong maybe / let’s save it for a gamified version of secret mystery noises.
The paper list was first, the pre-recording part. It’s great for lots of brainstorming, and especially good if you like working in non-designated spaces, drawing and making connections between ideas really freely. I adore Excel (conditional formatting would probably feature in my version of My Favourite Things), so I used that as my post-recording organiser. It was great to lay out my samples, select the ones I wanted to use for the Box of Noises and allocate the remaining ones to other collection ideas I had. It was especially good to play around with placing samples in different collections and change things around without disturbing the structure too much or repeating sounds.
3. Lower the entry point for production quality
My biggest inhibition recording sound has always been the quality of my equipment – I don’t own anything immensely professional when it comes to recorders, microphones or audio software. Whilst I do think that a crisp, clean sound makes an enormous difference, it was really refreshing to just confirm for myself that recording with a phone is possible and plenty. I also ended up finding some fun details in my messy, occasionally static, full-of-background samples – subtle birdsong, my feet walking about, fire crackling under a pot full of boiling water. What you intended to record becomes a little more surprising.
I illustrated each sound, and edited my illustrations on PowerPoint and Paint, and using them was, quite simply, pure childlike joy. Using what you’ve got is more than enough.
Calling things things is OK too.
4. Metadata is cool
As the little child who would sketch and take notes at museums (public apology to my mum and dad, and anyone who has ever had the unsolicited misfortune of coming to an exhibition with me), I found the idea of adding my own metadata to be a super cool feature. Although I haven’t yet added any details to my Box of Noises, it creates a really exciting investigative vibe for the whole process. I was suddenly curious about the brand of the kettle, the number of decibels on the fridge beep, the names and numbers of the colours on the pencils I was using. A language of precision became really indulgent. It is also a cool way to make you think about how you might map out an exhibition – what categories would you go for? Would you walk the visitor through your objects chronologically? Or organise your samples according to the different parts of the house where they were recorded? Or flow from samples of natural sounds to samples of mechanical ones? Maybe organise them from softer to noisier materials? So many possibilities!
5.Respond to your own questions by experimenting
This might be the most powerful thing about creating your own sound collection. You have the immediacy to play around with variables, see how the sound changes, record again, try again a little later, satisfy whatever questions pop into your brain by testing things out.
How would the sound of sizzling onions change if I added bigger chunks? How would different faucet openings change the stream of water and its sound? How different are the sound waves and peaks produced when opening and closing doors, packages and strips of Velcro in slower versus faster movements? You can get to really funky variations of the same noise and really isolate what is most interesting about it.
6.Record patterns and collection ideas that come up during the process
I ended up having a bunch of leftover samples, but not in a way that felt wasteful. I ended up wanting to make something with them – future collections, writing prompts, sound effects for future birthday videos I will probably end up making for friends. It was super useful to have a growing list of things I would like to make collections about. Some of them were inspired by common patterns in the sound samples I collected, some were inspired by the objects themselves and the comforting act of meaningfully collecting.
I am working on a collection called Hydrophonics because so many of the sounds ended up being of water in different containers, with different pressures, hitting different materials. I ended up realising that my daily sound production is mostly opening and closing things – doors, packages, fruit, books –, so I’d like to do a little collection solely on Opening and Closing Things. If collections are part of our acts of remembrance, I would like to grieve The Objects I’ve Lost and think of how to showcase objects that simply aren’t here with me anymore. (This is an At Home version of a project we had talked about at HQ back in March, which is cool to think about because it means that we can adapt big ideas into something that can be done from our corners and with our current resources.)
Keep track of all those thought bubbles that appear when you start realising the interesting intersections between your sounds and your objects, maybe it’ll lead you somewhere next.
7.Copyright is funky and a little confusing
I found this part a little tricky.
A good place to start is to record all your own sounds and create all your own illustrations or photographs, so you know you’re not taking any work from anywhere else. That’s also a good way to really explore your own territory of sounds and ideas, and see how enriched it is already.
However, when thinking of other collection ideas, I realised that some of it was going to involve compiling things from other sources, and overlapping some of my thoughts on them. I am still learning how to work with copyright to honour the work of others, and communicate that transparency in the best way possible. I am still not too sure how to best go about it, but I think it is something worth thinking about and referencing as well as possible when putting your collection together. Also, when you create your collection and choose the licensing settings, you can click on the links to find out more about how each type can be used – something I really appreciated!
8.Adapt big things into little things
Putting this collection together was a great reminder that our homes are full of cool things to explore and dignify. We can’t go to museums right now, which means we can be resourceful in other ways and really stretch how far we can go with the concepts of big words like collections, exhibitions, museum, knowledge.
Whatever is accessible to you at the moment can live in a collection. You can make your own collection of cubist drawings or use cardboard boxes to make your own galleries. But mostly, you can turn that V&A exhibition about Disobedient Objects into your own collection of things that you might have used to rebel. Take the idea of a series of archived sci-fi objects into a collection of your favourite ones. Put together some homemade sounds that could be part of a catalogue of sci-fi sound effects. A gallery of world instruments into things that make misleadingly percussive sounds at home. You can use the sounds you are recording to localise those big ideas. If museums are spaces of preservation, it’s like you get to make your own pickles. You can make At Home versions of these huge artistic movements and practices. For example, I have found research to be immensely enjoyable and freeing. I ended up finding out more about pencil manufacturing, Japanese onomatopoeias and different cloud classifications.
One of my favourite things about Museum in a Box is museum and home collections co-exist, at least for now, and I think there is something really grounding about that.
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.