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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’re thrilled to announce that Abira Hussein has joined the Museum in a Box Advisory Board.
We first worked with Abira back in 2016, when we assisted in developing the “Healing Through Archives” Collection, which she took around to lots of different community spaces and educational settings. It was a brilliant and fun project, gathering and presenting stories told by older women in London Somali communities, and combining them with photographic, sound and music archives from the British Museum and British Library. It was also really our first foray into the development of a Collection where objects were described by people who had used or experienced them, and described in the ‘mother tongue’ (instead of a Professional Expert). Since then, this work has blossomed into her award-winning NOMAD project, developed in collaboration with Mnemoscene.
Abira is a seasoned public speaker and seasoned academic, now undertaking a PhD at UCL entitled The Archive and The Community: using digital technologies and participatory approaches to co-create new archival spaces and knowledge within Somali communities in Britain. She’s also an Associate Producer at All Change and a Research Associate at Culture&andKing’s Digital Lab!
She’ll bring a new dimension to our Advisory Board, thanks to her wide-ranging network, expertise in developing social impact projects, deep familiarity with the UK/EU funding landscape, and her reputation and ability to speak truth to power.