Making a collection for a Museum in a Box involves a number of different activities: curating a set of objects, writing stories, recording audio, and writing content to the Box. It takes a lot of thought and effort to produce compelling content. With that in mind, we recently started offering Training Day Workshopsin our shop to offer support for those just getting started.
Last week we were delighted to welcome Tracy and Jo from Tees Valley Museums to HQ for a Training Day. They had purchased two Boxes to use as part of their outreach and participation with families in the local area and were looking for specific help with creating and editing great audio.
After welcoming Tracy and Jo at HQ and getting settled we talked about how the Box will be used and what the team have already started doing in preparation for using their Box. They recently bought a Zoom mic and have already been recording children’s responses to objects.
They had also been working on object lists for two different collections so we decided to use those as a springboard. We selected one object from each list that we would use to go through all the steps involved in creating and adding content and connecting it to an NFC sticker.
First we printed out the object images, mounted them on some card and added the stickers. We find this method of creating rough comps really useful as it helps to figure out whether the object and audio in question will work well. We can then make changes and push an idea along much faster.
Next we got the team set up with accounts on our Heart platform, and after a quick look round, set up a collection ready for them to start adding the objects and audio to.
Tracy and Jo didn’t have any experience of using audio editing. At HQ, we use Audacity because it’s free, does everything we need, and is quick to pick up. So after a quick walkthrough, we split into two groups to edit the children’s responses, working through things like trimming, amplifying, and adding sound effects to the tracks.
Below you can see the result of those efforts and hear the wondrous responses to the objects from the visitors! First there’s Jo’s Zebrite Grate Polish card which prompts us to remember that people like museum objects for all kinds of reasons..
and then there’s Tracy’s £5 note with responses about locomotion, George Stephenson, and ‘the biggest five pound note ever!’
It was great to see Tracy and Jo pick up Audacity so quickly, and also how a base level of digital knowledge for a tool can be all you need to get going. Both said how enthused they were to go away and do more audio editing, including with their own children! Audio editing can often seem a scary thing on the surface but once you know the basics it turns into a really creative and fun process!
After editing and exporting our .WAV audio files it was time for Tracy and Jo to upload the content they’d made to the collection on Heart. Watching how users navigate around the site is also really helpful to us as it’s showing us how we can improve it in the future.
With the audio online, we fired up the Boxes and went through the process of adding a new collection to a Box and writing stickers to make them play the right audio. There was a great sense of anticipation and excitement after we had heard the objects booping for the first time, as well as a real sense of achievement all round. All that just in time for our guests to dash off and catch their train back home.
We were delighted to host Tracy and Jo, and learned a lot from it too. We’re able to tailor workshops to your needs, so if you’ve bought a Box or are considering buying one but would like some guidance using it, do get in touch and see if one of our Training Day Workshops is right for you.
All of a sudden, we find ourselves in such strange times. Charlie and I are working from home, but very happy to still fulfill an order for a Box – our online shop is still open, and we hope you’ll consider a purchase to support our tiny business! If you’re stuck at home with your family looking for something to do, what better time to create a family archive!
Friend of MB, Katy Beale, announced this excellent list of resources gathered by her home educators’ network on a (different) Slack network I belong to, and I thought I’d republish here, just in case there are parents out there stuck at home looking for resources.
Put together by the home ed community. feel free to share and use as and when you need it for the coming days and weeks… FREE online education resources
A non-exhaustive list that might help those affected by school closures due to coronavirus, compiled by home educators.
Feel free to share.
Khan Academy https://www.khanacademy.org Especially good for maths and computing for all ages but other subjects at Secondary level. Note this uses the U.S. grade system but it’s mostly common material.
BBC Learning http://www.bbc.co.uk/learning/coursesearch/ This site is old and no longer updated and yet there’s so much still available, from language learning to BBC Bitesize for revision. No TV licence required except for content on BBC iPlayer.
Futurelearn https://www.futurelearn.com Free to access 100s of courses, only pay to upgrade if you need a certificate in your name (own account from age 14+ but younger learners can use a parent account).
Openlearn https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ Free taster courses aimed at those considering Open University but everyone can access it. Adult level, but some e.g. nature and environment courses could well be of interest to young people.
Twelve African heads of state, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, committed last month to “speed up the return of cultural assets” to the continent during the 33rd assembly of the African Union in Addis Ababa. Most of these cultural assets are still held captive by the old colonial powers in Europe. This renewed, high-level interest by African leaders in repatriating objects to their places of origin coincides with intensifying debates within Europe about decolonising museums there.
Britain — consistent in its refusal to return the looted Greek Parthenon Marbles and other items — now faces pressure from the European Union to repatriate the Marbles as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Despite this, a British newspaper saw fit last month to question whether artefacts stolen during the colonial era meet the criteria to be returned to their rightful owners or descendants.
Such deeply embedded reluctance to confront this glaring aspect of Europe’s colonial past is made starker still by French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to facilitate the immediate restitution of African artefacts held in French museums to their original homes in Africa.
As calls to decolonise strengthen worldwide, repatriating artefacts to the people and places they were often brutally taken from is both urgent and complicated. The remarkable work of the Kenya-led International Inventories Programme shows just how hard it is to get European museums to share inventories and details of their collections in the first place. As they argue, people need first to find out what was taken from them.
But getting artefacts back is also just a first step. Returning high-profile pieces is an important part of the decolonisation process — but it doesn’t, on its own, restore control over the history of the artefacts to communities that made and used them. Where colonialism was so pervasive was in its erasure of those histories, rewriting them once the artefacts entered museums. Even now, it’s rarely the people who made and used the artefacts who get to tell their stories and say why they’re important.
What headline-grabbing repatriation cases do not address is how to approach the thousands — in some cases millions — of similar items languishing in museum storerooms: artefacts that colonialists saw value in taken but that aren’t, now, considered valuable enough in European terms to permanently exhibit in museums, yet aren’t being given back either. Beyond the big-ticket items, we need to think about how we rewrite these stories, who it is that gets to tell them, and how.
Technology — ranging from online, open-access museum databases to 3D proxy prints of artefacts — is often touted as the solution to reunite people and objects torn apart during colonialism. But simply handling over images to Google to share far and wide does not solve the problem. Fundamental questions of who designs the databases, and who gets to control the data, reflect entrenched power dynamics that have historically left originating communities on the sidelines of their own history.
These debates about how to deploy new technologies are emblematic of a broader need to upend lingering colonial-style relationships, to shift power to that people can tell their own stories, in their own language, on their own terms.
There are ways, however, to use the power of technology to do just that. The Amagugu Ethu collective in KwaZulu-Natal — an isiZulu-speaking group of artists, a nurse, a writer, an educator, a tour guide, and a sangoma — is attempting that with their Museum in a Box.
Last year, during a visit to Cape Town, the collective identified and recorded stories for the Museum in a Box about Zulu artefacts collected in previous centuries for the country’s oldest museum — now part of the Iziko Museums. In monetary terms, few of the artefacts selected have value. But, for this group, artefacts dismissed by museums as pots, medicine containers, herbs or beadwork — objects chosen in colonial and apartheid days to “prove” how little civilised Africans were — have rich histories and significance that resonate today. What the box does is give space to narrate these unwritten stories on their own terms.
The shoe-box sized museum is, technologically speaking, a simple device centred on a Raspberry Pi — a credit-card sized computer that costs about $70 [South African rand]. Working with near-field communication tags, when a scaled 3D print or photograph of the artefact is placed on the box, it starts to “talk”, giving the object’s oral history through a built-in speaker.
Crucially, for Amagugu Ethu, the voices in the box are Zulu-speaking collaborators. The response to telling and hearing their own stories has been — in the words of Nini Xulu — emotional and affirming.
The collective exhibited the box at various heritage events in September. The aim is to place boxes in museums, schools and libraries across KwaZulu-Natal, and then work on expanding its collection to include Zulu artefacts held by museums across Europe — and beyond.
Being low-cost and portable, the box provides people access in places where internet connectivity is limited and expensive. It is not a substitute for doing the soul-searching political work of repatriating the artefacts; decolonisation is more than repatriation, but cannot happen without it.
What the box may be is a new way of using technology to upend these old power dynamics and ask people to tell their stories, in their own way.
Dr Laura Kate Gibson is a lecturer in the department of digital humanities at King’s College London.
In 2018, the museum approached us about the idea of scanning a set of objects for the upcoming galleries and we gladly accepted. Using photogrammetry we made a number of the 3D models in the final set. So let’s talk a little about the project and the awesome objects we were tasked with scanning!
The new Medicine Galleries include three thousand objects and showcase some truly amazing medical items. They’re all about ‘exploring our relationship with medicine and health through more than 500 years of history’ and include the world’s first MRI scanner and Alexander Fleming’s penicillin mould!
We’ve created over 20 commissions now, and many of them have included 3D digitisation as a service. This was a little different because the resulting models were to be viewed digitally (and not printed), but we still used the same photogrammetry techniques.
We worked closely with Digital Learning Producers Emilia McKenzie and Josh Blair, whittling down a list of possible objects from the Medicine collection based on their ‘scan-ability’. We looked at material, reflectivity, and size while Josh and Emilia came at it from strength of curriculum links.
Seeing images of the objects in advance really helps with that initial selection, but seeing an object in the flesh is even better, so it was useful to arrange a site visit at Blythe House to preview the objects. There are two major steps to making 3D models: Photogrammetric capture, and making the digital models.
We set our gear up in a corner of the stores and did image capture over two weeks, averaging about 3 objects per day. The chosen objects varied massively in size and complexity from a large wooden 18th century barber-surgeon’s chair, to a box of matches, to a cast iron baby-weighing scale.
It was great to get up close with the objects and be surrounded by so many other wondrous artefacts in the Blythe House stores. We love going behind the scenes at different museums, in fact it’s a large part of why we started the company in the first place, so visiting was a real treat for us!
Making the digital models
Having captured high-res images of all the artefacts we began the job of processing them into models using Agisoft’s Photoscan (now Metashape). A couple of the objects proved challenging owing to their complexity. Manufactured objects are usually more complicated then sculptural/hand-made things, so our models of sculptures tend to be quite forgiving as they’re one mass, whereas machine-made objects like the baby weighing scales or carbolic sprayer are not.
With their uniform metallic parts like nuts and bolts and pressed sheet metal failing to mesh well, areas of the models looked a bit “crunchy”. Accuracy was key for these objects as the detail helped explain their function.
To solve this we recreated the object topology and remodelled several of the objects using the exported meshes of the original scans, and the photos as additional reference. After remodelling the objects to a suitably detailed level we could then import those to Metashape again for retexturing. The result is a neat model that represented the original and load quickly online.
The new 3D models
We produced 13 models which you can see on the museum’s Sketchfab page. Our favourites include
the leeches jar (which now features some gruesome animated leeches too),
Emilia and Josh also worked on providing useful supporting material as well such as scale (which is often overlooked with 3D models). There are also loads of discussion prompt questions like is it OK to exploit or harm animals to make humans better?
At Museum in a Box we’re obviously massive advocates for object-based learning! Mostly because objects are a great way to prompt questions, stimulate discussion and improve people’s critical thinking. What’s more, having a digital model or 3D print means you can move the object around and view it from all angles, something that’s just not possible with objects in a gallery setting.
We were delighted to work on this digitisation project and play a part in growing the museum’s offering of digital resources. The Education team were great to work with and the outcome is a really well rounded set of resources that encapsulate the spirit of the new galleries perfectly!
We can provide 3D digitisation through our commissions so if you’re considering making a collection through Museum in a Box but don’t have the ability to do 3D in-house, do get in touch.
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.
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.
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.
As we move into 2020 we want to take a moment to talk about the latest version of the Box, version 1.3. We’ve dedicated much of the last year to developing it, and we LOVE it!
At the beginning of 2019 we sent 40 boxes around the world in our pilot. Following the feedback from that, and coupled with a wish list we had already built up, we identified a number of ways we could improve the Box.
At the same time we set ourselves the ambitious goal to build 1000 boxes by the end of the year. Building large numbers of the previous design wasn’t ever going to be practical, it was made up of a tangle of wires that we had to hand-wire ourselves and it relied on a variety of components ordered online from a multitude of suppliers. The Boxes were also subject to the occasional injury when transported around the world, so it’s suffice to say we had our work cut out!
Some of the ways we sought to improve the design included:
Better audio – louder and clearer!
Faster assembly time
More durable design
Logging boops offline
And so we started work in the spring; Adrian worked on designing the PCB as a neat home for all the components that were previously crammed into the box, George developed the awesome instructional graphics on the board and worked on software improvements, and Charlie designed a new acrylic ‘skull’ and mapped out the positions for the electronics and how they would be mounted inside the Box. So here it is…
The new PCB…
We LOVE the new PCB and it has a few important features worth talking about. Importantly there’s no wires. Previous Boxes included a large micro-USB extension cable, aux jack, and loads of wires which got in the way. Now the jacks are tiny components that sit at the back of the board and are devoid of the tangled wires that criss crossed older versions. This means we no longer have to hand solder anything (Yay!) and the boxes will be far more durable, reliable, consistent.
The ‘Brain’ of the Box is now a neat stack of three separate boards: A Raspberry Pi 3A+ sits at the bottom, then there’s our main custom board and progress LED board (affectionately known as ‘Blinky Lights’) which slots in a right-angle socket; and finally we have a stacking header and plastic standoffs which raises the reader high above the main PCB just underneath the surface of the box. Primed and ready for Booping!
There’s now a REAL-TIME CLOCK (RTC) too. Previously if a Box wasn’t on WiFi we had no way of logging when a Boop had happened because the Pi doesn’t keep track of time when it’s not online. So this new RTC allows us to timestamp a Boop and log it next time the Box is connected to a WiFi network.
Then there’s the DIGITAL-TO-ANALOG CONVERTER (D.A.C.). As the board says the D.A.C. ‘converts digital audio into analog sound for the amp’. This along with our super swanky and loud speakers make for waaaay better audio, that is free of static and incredibly clear. This alone makes the experience of using a Museum in a Box, particularly in noisy environments, so much better.
The new speakers not only pack a punch but also weigh a lot less which in turn makes them far easier to mount. V1.3 is almost half the weight of previous versions which will reduce both the cost of postage and it’s environmental impact when shipped around the world.
The new Skull…
With our new PCB came the challenge of mounting it inside the ‘Skull’. Past versions required us to fix bits to the sides, top, and base with an opening on the underside. This was fastened by screws in the feet and some t-nuts that were an incredible pain to mount and often came loose!
The advice we kept receiving when talking enclosures was to injection mould it. The main benefits of that being a moulded enclosure is ‘preassembled’ and ready to put the electronics straight in. It’s also very scalable and would allow us to integrate snap fittings into the design for mounting components inside.
To explore this we did a lot of research into moulding and a bunch of work CADing and prototyping different enclosures. We also took a team trip to visit Protolabs in Telford and learned a great deal from the brilliant people there and received an exciting factory tour of their setup. We attained quotes but ultimately decided not to go with injection moulding for two reasons:
1. The upfront tooling cost is very high and hard to justify for the small batches we planned to initially produce.
2. The overall aesthetic of the Box has become part our identity. The ability for us to easily modify the design, and teach others to build the Box (such as our amazing Verizon volunteers!) feels much more appropriate for our scale and values.
So, having decided to stick with our laser cut look we needed to find a neat way to mount the PCB inside the Skull. The solution was to switch from a bottom opening to a front loading Box. We created a neat groove on the back panel for the PCB to slide into and sit neatly in the middle of the box, lining up with openings at the back for the micro-USB and aux jacks. The Box can now be opened, the PCB removed, and replaced in mere moments!
The extra front and back panels are held in place and made removable by using some neat snap rivets which can be removed from the outside. We used these rivets for speaker mounting too where before we’d faffed about with tiny nuts and bolts and a laser-cut stand.
Other new features include a new progress LED board which is slicker and uses some recycled acrylic offcuts for the shims that we sent to the PCB manufacturers European Circuits. We spent a long time looking for the perfect light pipes to use with surface mount LEDs but ultimately decided to stick with through hole LEDs and our big green green LED. Why? Because they look bright and amazing!
A new Box deserves new packaging to go with it. We revisited a previous design using a more compact container and an insert that conceals the power plug and various admin and try me cards so all you see when unboxing is your shiny new Box!
Finally there’s the latest version of the software. We’ll talk about this in more depth another day but we’re chuffed that the Box now boots up waaay quicker than it used to and includes more audio guidance when working through steps like WiFi and updates.
The new assembly time…
With our new design manufactured we decided to assemble the first 20 Boxes. We were blown away to discover that assembly now takes ~7.5 minutes per Box – a 2000% increase from the old design!
In future this saving will enable us to fulfil orders quicker than ever before. The Box was intentionally designed for disassembly and as a result we proudly no longer use glue during the assembly process. The Box will now be much easier for people to disassemble and recycle at the end-of-life and we will share a breakdown of the parts and materials inside the Box in due course to make safe and appropriate disposal even easier.
And so with our shiny new Box design came our first test…
So there you have it, our new Box and the culmination of over nine months hard work. I hope that proves an interesting insight into some of the design decisions we made in developing v1.3. We love it and we hope you do too!
Our shop is now online so you can buy your very own v1.3 Box with a Make Your Own kit now! Kits are available in Individual, Educator, Small Org and Large Org options and colours include CMYK, Transparent, and Plywood.
Have a wonderful New Year from all at Museum in a Box.
One of our Make Your Own pilots, Auckland Museum, created a Box that they have now tested with two local primary schools, and they made this brilliant video to share what happened, and what the students and teachers thought:
We were especially excited to hear how the teacher towards the end leant very naturally into:
how much easier it is when the museum comes to the classroom, and
that Make Your Own is a fluid extension of a museum sending a Box into a class.
Thank you very much to Mandy, Claire, and Tom at Auckland Museum for this wonderful record.
Quotes from the transcript that stood out for us:
“It converts objects into stories and audio.”
“Yeah, the boop box is really fun cause it’s like having playing and learning combined.”
“I really liked the fact that they didn’t have an insight into what it was going to be. They had to listen, they had to use a different sense, rather than just looking or sitting at a device.”
“One of the things we’d really love to see is this becoming part of an interactive piece of work for the kids, where the kids get to experience the objects, hear about the objects, link that to their own inquiries, but even being able to take the next step and being able to perhaps code their own little tags, so that they can take what they’ve seen from this and then use that as a way of sharing their own learning rather than just purely receiving the information, being able to create and share information through that medium as well.”
“The greatest benefit to us of this kit and this program is the availability to our teachers in their classrooms. And to our kids being able to access this information without necessarily having to go to the museum. And, I think, when we think about how we want to engage our children in learning, every moment counts, so the opportunity for the kit to be here and travel to us and for our teachers to have time with it beforehand, to experience it and think about how they are going to use it really has much wider reaching implications than the traditional model of going to a museum, seeing an exhibitions and talking about it when we come home.”
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.