company news

George is leaving, Adrian is taking over

After eight happy years, George has decided to leave Museum in a Box. In November 2022, she became the Co-Founder and first Executive Director of the new Flickr Foundation, and that seems like a natural transition moment. 

Adrian McEwen, Tech Lead and original team member, has graciously decided to take over running the business.

Photo of George and Adrian, smiling for the camera

George: Adrian, you’ve agreed to take on the responsibility of running Museum in a Box in its next phase. Why?

Adrian: Having been part of Museum in a Box since the start, I’ve seen it grow and the wealth of lovely projects that the museums and schools and more have done with it. I’ve been happy to take a more behind-the-scenes role, as that allowed me to continue running my existing business, MCQN Ltd, alongside it.

MCQN works on gentle, Internet-connected objects and we’ve been growing the product side of the company more in the last couple of years.  When you decided to move onto new (old) challenges, it seemed a good fit to bring Museum in a Box into the MCQN fold and increase our involvement.

George: What do you most want to do this year?

Adrian: Get new boxes made and back in the shop!

The global chip shortage hasn’t been a fun period to navigate.  There are a couple of key parts of boxes which, if we redesign, will give us more control over production.  It also lets us improve the software update process and, down the line, opens up options such as a USB connection for adding collections.

It’s some work we’d both been discussing for a while, and now is the time to crack on with it.  That requires rewriting the software for the box, and changing some of the electronics inside it; it’ll take a little while to work through that, but should be ready towards the end of the year.

Adrian: What do you feel you didn’t get enough time to work on?

George:  Honestly, I’m happy to step away at this point. I’m very proud that we managed to make Museum in a Box into a batch operation. It was very satisfying for me to develop our box-making so we could work in batches of 100 at a time. I enjoyed making boxes at my dining room table during our long lockdown and sending them all over the place very much indeed. It was extremely satisfying to improvise around all that until I was able to settle on a repeatable process.

I am sad I didn’t get the opportunity to visit with the team at the Royal Mint Museum. I was interested to see what logistics they had created to allow them to send any one of their 75 boxes to any care home in the UK. 

There are obviously extensions and improvements that could have been made to the “Heart” website where people can explore and create collections, but, that’s up to you now!

Adrian: What could be more exciting than working on Museum in a Box?  Your next challenge must be something interesting!

George: Museum in a Box is exciting. I really enjoyed bringing the business into the world, and I especially enjoyed watching people (and particularly kids) using it for the first time. I’ll never forget that look of delight.

But, you’re right. The next thing is a huge challenge. The Flickr photo sharing website is nearly 20 years old, and in that time, it has grown into a picture collection 50 billion pictures strong. It’s one of the biggest picture collections humans have ever assembled, and I believe that means we need to treat it with more care than a corporation is set up to do. So, the Flickr Foundation’s mission is to make Flickr pictures visible in 100 years. Deliberately a long reach, and a big idea, and just the sort of thing a) I like to bite into, and b) I think we need to start developing as a more broad approach and mentality around our digital cultural heritage. We pour our histories into online platforms at a mad rate these days, and there’s a big risk hiding in plain sight there – that we’ll lose it, as corporate and shareholder interests ebb and flow.

Adrian: Which boxes or collections were the most fun/strangest/exciting?

George: While I would never name a favourite child, I do remember some collections fondly, like:

Frogs in a Box – Made for the Smithsonian Institution, this collection combined beautiful illustrations of various frog and toad species with their “songs” taken from a herpetologist’s album of recordings of each species. Simple and wonderful, and wow! Some frog songs can travel for miles.

See Red Women’s Workshop – Developed with the V&A, this collection was installed in a small temporary V&A in London, and one of the first successful “in-gallery” uses. The content was also so simple. Postcards made by the See Red collective, and the stories surrounding that poster or their work at the time, directly from the women who worked on it.

A photo of a corner of a gallery at the V & A, showing posters alongside a Museum in a Box with an array of postcards-with-tags above it.

Nos statues préférées – our favorite statues – one of our testers for the Make Your Own product was a school in the French Alps. The students made 3D prints of famous sculptures around the world, and wrote their own scripts to describe them. The personified La statue du Christ Rédempteur is a source of great joy.

Generally, a smile always crossed my lips whenever I came across a collection in a different language. That is one of my favourite features – that a Box can speak any language!

Adrian: What would you put into your ideal collection?

George: I had always dreamt of a collection that grows and updates over time. One idea was to have the bust of my favourite newsreader and a Box in my kitchen. Each morning, I could place her on the Box to hear the latest news stories as I enjoyed my morning coffee. Or, I could give a Box to my parents (who live 10,000 miles away) and could send them postcards with a sticker and a story from me from my adventures. My Dad has dementia now too, so he’d probably enjoy a collection that plays him Queen songs.

Adrian: Ooh, that would be lovely. *makes notes for future developments* It has been fantastic to work with you over these past eight years; the Flickr Foundation is in great hands and I look forward to watching it develop!


Will I be able to order a Box soon?  As mentioned in the discussion, we’ve got some development work to do before we can produce the next batch.  We should have that done and orders opened up in late 2023.

Will the existing boxes still be supported?  Yes.  Nothing changes around that, email or post to the #get-help channel in the Museum in a Box Slack, as usual, for any support issues.

company news

Houston, we had a (really big) problem.

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 very bad 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.)

Kanagawa oki nami ura


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: 

  1. a public part, which is what we’ve been talking about so far and can be shared with anyone and everyone; and 
  2. 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 if you prefer.

commission company news reminiscence

Spring is coming: Announcing a new commission with the Royal Mint Museum

“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.”

The Royal Mint Museum in Llantrisant, Wales, is celebrating the 50th year of decimal currency in the UK. We have co-created a ‘What’s that in new money?’ collection that can be sent to any care home in the UK free of charge for a reminiscence session. There are 45 boxes in their flock available to borrow. That means about one thousand possible outreach visits in the year. Amazing!

The What’s that in old money? collection is a mix of coins, purses, a decimeter, and postcards
A decimeter, used for conversion from old money to new

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! 

Perhaps our fallow phase has paid off?

company news manufacturing shipping shop

Batch No. 2 is GO

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.

Here’s Jenn with her first ever skull, all glued up and looking fancy!

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.

company news myomb shop

Thriving a little bit in a bit more certainty

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.

Harry, International Bomber Command Centre, CC-BY

So, there you go. Head first into our present, shared abyss, and here’s to it!

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.

company news competition museum


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.


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:

  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.)

company news get help training

Training Days!

“Thank you for your hospitality and making things as simple as possible to understand.”

– Tracy Linsley, Tees Valley Museums

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 Workshops in 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.

The Workshop

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..

Jo’s Zebrite workshop audio

and then there’s Tracy’s £5 note with responses about locomotion, George Stephenson, and ‘the biggest five pound note ever!’

£5 pound note mockup card
Tracy’s £5 notes workshop audio

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!

Uploading content to the Heart platform.

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.

Jo and Tracy booping their cards for the first time!

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.

Training Day Workshops can be purchased in the shop.

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Museum in a Box tells our stories

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

Article on
(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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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!