New Commission: Amagugu Ethu / Our Treasures

We had a visit from Laura Gibson to our office in Bloomsbury back in May 2017. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend, Rosalind Parker, who was in the same PhD program as Laura, at King’s College London.

Record of Laura’s 2017 visit in our guestbook: “Wonderful idea. I’m already looking forward to working with you. Thank you.”

Laura was then working on her PhD, entitled Decolonising South African Museums in a Digital Age: Re-imagining the Iziko Museums’ Natal Nguni Catalogue and Collection. This was the culmination of many years of interest and work in the South African cultural sector, which began in 2009, when Laura was Assistant Curator at Iziko Museums in Cape Town. Since then, Laura has been back and forth and around KwaZulu-Natal building community, bringing together a team of Zulu community experts around the work of decolonising museum collections. She also recently submitted her thesis over the summer – Yay! – and Dr. Laura Gibson has already won a prestigious award for it, from Universities Antwerpen – double Yay!

Why am I telling you this, you may well ask… Well, it’s because Laura, and her colleague, Hannah Turner from the University of Leicester (now at University of British Columbia iSchool), constructed a brilliant project that we were to become involved in, which has turned out to be a highlight in the life of the company, and the first phase of which has just completed, so we wanted to tell you all about it.

Amagugu Ethu in Cape Town, April 2019

Fast forward to this year, and we find that Laura and Hannah secured funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the University of Leicester Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to bring together a group of nineteen Zulu community experts, anthropologists, scholars, entrepreneurs and museum professionals for a three-day workshop at Iziko Museums in Cape Town, the oldest museum in sub-Saharan Africa.

We were in the group, thrilled beyond measure that Laura and Hannah had designed that a Museum in a Box would be one of their project outputs, ideally to be returned from London (where we made it) to KwaZulu-Natal, so Zulu kids could learn about objects held in colonial museums – not from the museum’s perspective, but the Zulu community experts who selected and described them.

There’s KwaZulu-Natal, and Cape Town.

We assembled from various cities in KwaZulu-Natal, London, Cape Town, and Leicester to descend on Iziko and other venues for a three-day workshop.

Here’s the crew on Day 1 at the museum.

Ostensibly, Charlie and I were there to document everything, taking photographs constantly, and recording audio of the whole event. We were keen that it wasn’t too orchestrated, but that the free-flowing fun conversation and activities were captured live and unfettered. Here’s the outline of the workshop:

Day 1

We met in the morning at the Iziko Social History Centre, and said our hellos and introduced ourselves to each other. I was paired with Mama Nini, who got my measure within about 10 seconds, as we worked through the preset getting-to-know-you questions. “George doesn’t like talking about intimate relationships,” she said. On point. Haha.

Then, the group was able to do one of my very favourite things, which was exploring the museums historical registers, catalogues, and storerooms. Assisted by Iziko staff, Dr. Gerald Klinghardt, Curator of Anthropology, and Lailah Hisham, Collections Manager, we were able to see all sorts of items, with a view to each of the experts selecting one to describe.

In the afternoon, we were able to demonstrate Museum in a Box to the group, and were excited that everyone agreed a Box would be a good thing to produce.

Day 2

The morning began with a tour from Fatima February, Conservator, who explained for the group what happens when an object is acquired by the museum. She had also gathered the objects chosen by participants so we could begin photography.

Next, we visited Lailah’s lair in the Collections Department, surrounded by old card catalogues and accession registers. It was so illuminating at this point to really see first hand how objects collected in colonial times were described. Laura shared a story from her research about a “Zulu” sweat scraper that is sparsely documented on the official catalogue card; however exploring the South African Museum’s archives more thoroughly reveals its disturbing provenance—stolen from the body of a Zulu man killed by the collector’s friend—that is absent from the official record.

In the afternoon, the group worked with ceramicist, Gary Frier, to create visual responses to belongings found in the collection and elsewhere in their lives, and Gary fired the pieces to return to the group once they were ready. The conversation around the making noted that many of the skills needed to make the objects seen the day before in the collection were disappearing, and how great it would be to facilitate makers who still hold those skills to teach and share that knowledge.

Towards the end of the day, the whole group took a trip to Table Mountain, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. That title is not given lightly, and the mountain was truly shining for our visit.

Day 3

We moved venues for the morning, to Rust en Vreugd. The group was facilitated by Mbongeni Nomkonwana and Antonia Porter, and after some fun warm-up exercises, got down to business describing the objects from Iziko the group had selected. Antonia also encouraged everyone to look inwards, and reflect on what the workshop had brought forward for them.

Here’s how Laura described it in her summary of the workshop: “Dr Skhumbuzo Miya shared his concerns about the many powerful belongings held in the Iziko collections, items so powerful they could burn down a house without fire and that are, he believes, stored and treated incorrectly. He asked what reparation process is the museum following to cleanse these items? Later that evening, he stated that he had seen spirits living in hell in the storerooms. Thuli Mtshali likewise expressed regret that many of the stories behind the objects had been lost because apartheid and colonialism allowed people to collect, or steal, things form people without knowing this information that has since been lost. Thulani Thusi and Wilfred Mchunu spoke about the possibilities for collaboration that arose for them during the workshop, a sentiment captured for them by a leaf and feather. Nini Xulu’s plant choice also allowed her to reiterate how important it is that we work together and how beautiful it can be when we do.”

Then it was back to Iziko to do final photography and audio recordings, and we were delighted when Dr Miya played some of his songs for us on guitar!

Bringing it together

We left Cape Town with smiles, three days of audio, and thousands of photographs. It was lovely to revisit the event through these materials. We wanted the collection we developed to represent three things:

  1. The objects selected from the Iziko stores, their catalogue cards (if they existed), and the audio descriptions of each object, as given by one or more of the Zulu community experts
  2. The event itself, because so often this “contextual colour” is completely missing or hard to find in the works and background of events, and the workshop, its participants and its design generated the information and content, and finally
  3. The participants, through their portraits, their voices, and their own introductions (or songs!), since this is almost entirely absent from the official record of colonial museums.

We created three “types” of postcards to represent these three ideas, which were also all translated from English into isiZulu. Look and listen to their audio, too:

Imphepho Object Card

Spear Object Card (note there was no catalogue card for this)

Day 3 Event Card

And a portrait card, depicting Thandi Nxumalo, both with a picture and her voice

September 2019

Last week, Charlie and I were sitting in our office in Hoxton, and photos started coming through on our project WhatsApp, showing the launch party that was going on at Luthuli Museum in Groutville, just north of Durban in KZN. The whole South African crew had gathered to celebrate, and Laura was there too, to hand-deliver the box. It was exciting and brilliant! We are very proud.

We were also thrilled to see two messages from Thulani and Nini…

Colleagues,

I want to thank each one of you for another effort on Amagugu Ethu, our meeting after the launch was a productive one. The people were so amazed about the work of Amagugu and to see the Museum in a Box. The Prince Zulu express his heartfelt gratitude for the work toward conservation of the Zulu objects and he requested that Amagugu should also do awareness programs. All the best to all of us towards what we have discussed today. Dr Gibson and the team in UK indeed we thank you for all you hard work.
– Thulani Thusi

Thanks so much for the Charlie/George Magical Museum in a Box. God bless you with more intellectual technological invocation to share with Africa.
– Nini Xulu

Best wishes from Team KZN received via WhatsApp

If the box wasn’t involved at all in the project, the results would still have been amazing. Power would have moved, would have changed hands. But, we like to think that one thing the Box has helped do is contain it, and perhaps present it more easily.

Thank you to our new friends, Nini, Thandi, Thuli, Wilfred, Dr Miya, Thulani and Boyzie for being fabulous, and we hope to see you again!

“Siyabonga Kathulu Museum in a Box. And this is just the beginning… Amagugu Ethu, South Africa.”

Amandla!

Points of Contact: A new box with the London Borough of Camden

The Arts & Tourism team at the London Borough of Camden received funding from Arts Council England to deploy a Museum in a Box as the primary vehicle to engage young people in the Camden Arts Collection.

We made a box that contained eight works from the collection; a mixture of sculptural and two-dimensional pieces. The box travelled widely around Camden, and was part of 13 workshops across the borough, held at Swiss Cottage, Kentish Town, Queens Crescent and Kilburn Centre libraries, and the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The project culminated in Points of Contact: The Camden Art Collection Unboxed, an exhibition at the Swiss Cottage Library Gallery, open until 1st of July 2017.

Creating 3D from 2D
We were curious to try a sort of extrusion of some of the paintings in the box, and Tom worked to literally add a new dimension to works by Derek Jarman and others, to create a tactile version of each of the flat works.

Hands on, helpful user research
For us, a big part of the appeal of this partnership was the opportunity to conduct workshops with kids and their guardians in all the libraries we visited. We learned all sorts of things about putting the box in front of people who’d never seen it before, and faced a few teeth-clenching moments as the kids played with the 3D prints in unexpected ways (like making the Running Table try to pass through Barred Portal, which it turns out isn’t possible).

It was a pleasure to witness that first “what’s this magic thing?” look on people’s faces, and the general ease of use of the box. We also learned that the “cornucopia” display technique we’d used with more adults — where we spread lots of objects out and let people choose their own adventure — resulted in kids just wanting to try every object as quickly as possible to see what they’d say. In the later workshops, that led us to a more contemplative, steady demonstration, where we’d bring out one piece at a time, ask the kids about it, and then boop the object to see what happened.

We met lots of brilliant kids, but must give special mention to The Magnificent Balthazar, who we met at Swiss Cottage. He was very happy to sit with the objects and the box for well over an hour, and took the time to create his own rendition of each of the works in the box, all eight, and showed real artistic talent, even at just five years old! At one of the later workshops, run by artist Esther Springett, Angela & and her son, Lorenzo, came along, and enjoyed it so much they attended a second session. Angela even took the time to write a guest blog post on the Camden arts blog, where she reflected:

With 8 artists to choose from, Lorenzo chose the 3D printed ‘Cubes’ (Carl Heideken, 1973) and I have to say he totally surprised me with his creativity. After feeling the textures of the cubes and listening to an audio response to each object on special micro-chipped postcards, Lorenzo started to develop his own story about ’12 boxes 6 chances’. A 3D print definitely helped him to get a stronger connection with the piece.

It was brilliant to meet Angela and Lorenzo in person too, at the exhibition which opened in early May.

Exhibition!
This project was the first time that Museum in a Box ended up in an exhibition. It seemed a natural fit to exhibit all the prints, postcards and the box in the exhibition space. We created two versions to playback for visitors: the first was the “official” responses created by artists participating in the project, Esther, Ciara, and Jonathan. It was great fun to hear such creative responses coming out of the box when things were booped, instead of just a factual, wall-label-style rendition of information about each work.

The other set of postcards played responses made by the kids in each workshop. There were new stories and interpretations about each work, and, again, it was excellent fun to hear such creative takes on the art.

I must say, I did feel a bit strange about having the box locked down in an exhibition space, because it’s designed to be mobile, but once Charlie and I saw the superb installation Jonathan and Sophie had designed for the gallery space, my initial concerns disappeared quickly. Now we’re wondering how else a box might supplement a more traditional exhibition experience…

A Collaboration
We certainly didn’t complete this box in isolation, and it was a pleasure to collaborate with Sophie Rycroft and Samina Zahir from the Camden Arts team, Caroline Moore at the fabulous GOSH Arts, artist and gallery designer, Jonathan Miller, and last but not least, artist educators Esther Springett and Ciara Brennan, who surprised and delighted us mightily with their creativity and skill with kids.

Making smaller brains

We’ve made about 20 prototype boxes now and have learned a great deal from each one. We wanted to highlight one particular box we made a couple of months ago where we experimented with a smaller form and what making it has taught us. 

The design of the box or ‘skull’ (the plywood/acrylic case that contains the tech) as we refer to it is dictated by two things: the form factor of the Raspberry Pi in question and all the features we feel necessary for the product to have.

Early on we were creating boxes with the Pi 2 which required a dongle to connect the box to the internet but several months ago we switched to the Pi 3 which features built-in WiFi saving space within the skull. Raspberry Pi also make the ‘Zero’ which is about half the size of the Pi 3, we liked the idea of a small box which would be more transportable and also not require mains power connection so we designed a smaller square brain inspired by the recorder box we made back in October.

Our prototype recording box which inspired the square brain design

I (Charlie) got to work with the layout of the hardware inside the box trying out a new method of speaker mount while Adrian worked his tech wizardry to figure out what hardware to adapt and then got cutting! The square brain featured several changes from the regular rectangle namely:

  • a power on/off button
  • push button volume control
  • No LED progress bar
  • an internal battery charged via a Pi charger board and micro USB cable
  • A single speaker mounted to one side

We tested the box at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair (we’ll share a post on that soon) where we had it set up alongside the standard rectangular box. Seeing the two side-by-side it was clear the rectangle with its larger surface area provided more of a platform for the children to place multiple objects on top of however the square allowed them to pick the box up and put it to their ear or sit down on the the floor with it.

Getting hands on with the square design at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair

Despite working well and having great mobility the square box also had some obvious limitations:

  • the Pi Zero only allowed us one speaker, so the sound wasn’t as good
  • the clicky volume buttons weren’t as effective or efficient as a dial
  • the lack of our physical progress bar didn’t help people understand they had to wait a bit
  • larger objects might not balance well on the smaller top

The square design with its illuminated power button and push button volume controls

We do love the smaller form factor but when you put the two designs side-by-side the larger rectangular box has a greater presence, not to mention more room for fiddly cables and components. It was a great thing to prototype and has since influenced alterations for our bigger boxes. This won’t be the last you see of square boxes however, I’ve had some fun recently prototyping a bigger ‘Design-for-Disassembly box, but all that is for another day.

C