New Commission: Smithsonian Libraries!

It’s a sign of a crazy last few months that I haven’t been able to write properly about our biggest project yet. At the end of April, Charlie, Adrian and I went to Washington, DC, to hand-deliver 11 Boxes to  Smithsonian Libraries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This commission is huge for us in several ways:

  1. It’s the Smithsonian Institution.
  2. It’s the first time we’ve been commissioned to deliver more than one Box.
  3. It’s the first time we’ve been able to bring in folks from the creative industries to join the crew  specifically, two writers, three actors, and a big fancy-lookin’ recording studio. This allows us to demonstrate our content creation capacity (so if a museum wants to commission this service from us, we can show them great work).
  4. The deployment is being formally evaluated (and that’s already really interesting).

This is the first of a couple of posts I’d like to write about this commission, one other perhaps about how we’ve also been able to level up in our Making Boxes skillz.

Background

Back in 2016, Martin Kalfatovic was in London to celebrate the 10th birthday of the magnificent Biodiversity Heritage Library project, and I asked if he’d like to pop by our office to say hi and see what we were up to with this weird little box thing. He came, he liked it, he paused for a second, and then said “What if…” It wasn’t long after that when he introduced us to Sara Cardello, the Education Specialist at Smithsonian Libraries, whose job it is to get Libraries’ content into the hands of kids.

It wasn’t long after that when Sara and Martin asked us to make a Box for them to show to their Board, to get the idea across and pique their interest. We made what remains one of my favourite Collections to date, Frogs in a Box. It’s a favourite because of the name, frankly, but also because it does a very simple thing well: it blends the collections of two different parts of the Smithsonian into one place. There are photographs of North American frogs from a book published in the early 20th Century combined with Sounds of North American Frogs, an incredibly detailed and rigorous audio commentary in Smithsonian Folkways by a American herpetologist called Charles who, as I understand it, basically spent the 1950s travelling across American recording frog songs.

We decided to go for it, and trial the idea on a smallish scale. Small scale for Smithsonian, large scale for us! Sara – who has proved to be Herculean and brilliant – spent the next 18 months looking for a way to fund developing more boxes to support the development and distribution of the SI Libraries UNSTACKED programme. And then, success! She secured support from two different funding bodies: the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, and the Youth Access Grant supported by the Gates Foundation. And then, wow! We were ready to go. Incredible.

Here are the project specs:

  • 11 Boxes
  • 2 Collections for each Box
  • 7 schools and 2 “discovery spaces” across the USA
  • 40 postcards and 4x 3D prints in each Collection

Collections

We planned to create two new Collections for the project, and each one shared the same structure of four main themes + 40 postcards + four 3D prints, but the content was very different.

Stories of Migration from the Asia-Pacific to America

Following the stories of four characters in the form of letters to and from their families. Ben from China, Hong from Vietnam, Abraham from Bikini Atoll, and Rhea from New York (with family from Trinidad & Tobago and India). Sprinkled with facts about rules and regulations for migrants new to the USA, and hints of cultural expression from home countries, this set is an emotive and personal look at what it would have been like to make the big journey in search of something better.

Here’s one of the stories from Ben:

Crew

Curation & Writing: Louise To
Actor: Suni La
Sound Recording: Offset Audio
Sound Post-Production: Charlie Cattel-Killick
Director: George Oates

History of STEM from the Dibner Collection

Four sets of cards aligned with the STEM categories: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths, this set tells various stories of the history of STEM through imagery in some important scientific texts from The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology mixed with first-person accounts and other dramatisations of scientific subjects.

What might it be like to actually be a Black Hole?

Crew

Curation: Liz Laribee
Writer: Tom Bowtell
Actors: Becky Wright, Hemi Yeroham
Sound Recording: Offset Audio
Sound Post-Production: Charlie Cattel-Killick
Director: George Oates

Now what?

I’ll plan to write a bit more about the design, production, delivery and evaluation of this commission – it was a big step for us in terms of our production capacity. In the meantime, here’s a quote from one of the kids we met in DC:

“This is actually my first time enjoying a museum” from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

Our First Upgrade!

The Jewish Museum London (JML) commissioned a Box from us last year, about remembering Jewish people who served in WWI and WWII.

They got in touch with us again this year to see about doing an upgrade of their Box – our first upgrade!

Since we delivered the initial commission, the Box’s core design has seen some important changes, and in fact, we declared V1.0 of the physical design back in February this year. We’ve also been gradually improving the software that runs the core Box interactions, so this was a good chance to upgrade the code on the JML Box while we were poking around.

Physical upgrades

  • The plywood ‘skull’ has been simplified with the speaker and power jacks now exposed on the back of the box, along with access to one of the Pi’s USB ports. (We’re not sure what we want to do with that yet. One idea is to incorporate a microphone into the mix.)
  • Most of the previous perforations across the older ‘skull’ have now been filled in, to focus the sound (so it doesn’t just bounce around inside the box), and most importantly,
  • We’ve replaced the old tiny stereo speakers with one beefy new mono one (see below)!
Our beefy new speakers!

So, to do the upgrade, we took back the museum’s old Box, gutted it, reusing  what we could before cutting them a new V1.0 Box in plywood, reconstructing it with the new sound components, and handing it back.

There were two other important aspects of the upgrade: the audio clips and the software. The museum had tested their Box in schools and found the audio was too long. We’ve been evaluating this challenge across all the Collections we’ve made, and developing a much better understanding about audio duration and content types that work really well with young children. Our main conclusion is – perhaps unsurprisingly – if clips are too long people begin to disengage and switch off. Therefore, the museum trimmed some of their lengthier tracks down and we republished them to the Box.

Now, with WiFi!

It’s now possible to configure each Box in situ to get on to a WiFi network, so we made the cheeky addition inside the shiny new packaging – a WiFi card! The card allows the box to connect to a local WiFi network with the assistance of a smartphone, tablet or computer.

The upgrade gave us the opportunity to test the new wifi configuration out in the wild  for the first time as well as update the shortened audio tracks onsite using the museum’s WiFi.  Once the box was online, and after a little troubleshooting had been done, the box automatically pulled down and updated the new audio tracks!

What WiFi means for the future

Upgrading the Jewish Museum London’s box has been a great testbed for us to learn how we can retro-fit and improve upon older boxes as well as provide on-site updates to content without the need for physical intervention from us- this is an exciting development that’s heading towards our long term goal, where we can offer subscriptions to people who have Boxes. Say you like Natural History” and you subscribe, every month (or so), you get a new set of things delivered from museums all over the world, and your Box just knows about the new set of things because we’ve been able to update it in the background.

Huge thanks to the JML crew for inquiring about the upgrade and for being patient while we figured out a method of best practice!

Charlie

Register your interest: Make Your Own Museum in a Box pilot

In case you don’t know, Museum in a Box is a tactile, interactive device you can use to explore museum collections from around the world. You can watch our How It Works video if you haven’t seen it before.

Just about every teacher we meet wants a Make Your Own version of Museum in a Box, and we’re ready to respond to that demand. We’re looking to place Boxes into a creative classroom process, as a project-based learning tool, where students select and print their own objects around any subject or theme, produce audio responses, and connect everything up with NFC stickers and our software.

Make Your Own will help kids learn skills like curation, collaboration, critical thinking, writing, audio production, digitisation, information & media literacy, and maybe even 3D printing.

We’re also looking for small cultural organisations to try it, and hopefully an artist or two as well. It’s not just for a classroom setting, and we’d like to see if it’s useful for small museum outreach too.

So, we’re like to ask you if you’d be interested to participate in our Make Your Own pilot programme, which we’d like to run in the first six months of 2019. You can be anywhere in the world!

The rough schedule looks like this:

  • End of 2018: recruit participants, design initial materials, prep software, gather hardware stock
  • Jan-Mar 2019: conduct baseline evaluation, build hardware/boxes, send out Kits
  • Apr-Jun 2019: continue evaluation, design iteration as needed, conduct short term completion evaluation, determine scaling requirements

Our target is to work with 20 schools or smaller cultural organisations in the pilot, but, if this registration of interest process shows a lot more demand, we’ll see what we can do about expanding that ambition!

What we’ll provide, at no charge:

  • One free Make Your Own starter kit (contains a Box, 20 NFC stickers, our software platform)
  • An iterative set of progressive curriculum outlines that can be adapted to your students’ age
  • Lesson plan suggestions to facilitate producing materials for the box (objects and content)
  • Good cheer!

What we expect from you:

  • A willingness to Really Try The Thing with us
  • Availability for either in-person or online interviews
  • Creative and critical feedback about what’s working and how you could make it better
  • A certain amount of classroom time with your student (or organisation time with your crew) to think about making a great Museum in a Box
  • Possible public feedback and/or video interview and/or guest blog posts and things like that

What you’ll get:

  • Excitement and gratitude!
  • Credit where credit is due, as early adopter, innovative cultural capital builders
  • A network of like-minded cultural/educational professionals

So… if you’re interested, do please let us know using this simple Google form!