Technology is a tool, not our master

When people see and try a Museum in a Box for the first time, after they’ve been charmed by the magic and wizardry, they’ll often ask how does it work?

Once we start down that line of conversation, it also doesn’t take too long before people ask have you patented this?

The fun part is, we tell people exactly how it works. It’s a combination of Near Field Communication (NFC), a Raspberry Pi, and a few other bits and bobs, which we happily explain.

Illustration of main components, by Charlie Cattel-Killick, February 2018

We’ve also made boxes out of transparent acrylic so you can see exactly how it works. I was chuffed when I handed one of our transparent boxes to my nephew, Alex, and he was able to identify, describe, and connect each of the hardware components into the whole. And I’m not just saying that because he’s family. I was genuinely impressed.

A transparent box alongside one of our early physical prototypes for our new internal layout

In one of our recent commissions, with Monroe County History Center, we loved hearing that they thought a transparent Box in particular would be of interest to their community. The commission was about developing reminiscence collections for folks suffering from dementia and their carers, and quite a few of the men in the programme had an engineering background, so we hoped there’d be interest in the device itself, as well as the 1960s.

We also want to make our design available in an open format so students can literally make their own boxes too. I suspect we’ll end up doing this with one of our early designs which maker spaces or classrooms may have the components to hand to fabricate their own Box. As we’re marching towards higher production volumes, that’s meant developing internals that are much quicker to assemble, and can be made in large volumes. We are developing a Make Your Own kit version this year, so far focussed on the content side of things – like choosing and digitising objects, writing and recording their stories – but we’ve always hoped to extend Make Your Own to include the hardware piece too.

That brings me to our newest design innovation, which relates to our new and improved printed circuit board (PCB). Instead of us hand-crafting the internals – because I should never be making wiring looms! – we’ve now got a super-slick, all-encompassing PCB which incorporates and unifies the amplifier, digital-to-analog audio conversion, power for the Box, our physical progress bar, and allows us to add a real-time clock to help us manage and record when objects are booped.

As Adrian and I chipped away on the PCB layout, I found myself unable to recognise or interpret what all the wiring bits actually were, and needed Adrian to label them for me. Then it dawned on me. Why not label them for everyone? Why not explain transparently exactly what each bit does? So, I designed cheeky labels for each of the main components, so you can familiarise yourself with it all.

Illustrated PCB
Our shiny new annotated PCB!
Blinky lights!!!!

We’ve also redesigned how the Box opens up, to make it easier to pull the guts out and have a look. People – often men, interestingly – tell us “but you could just do this with a phone”, and we nod politely and say yes, you could. But, a) that’s just another screen in your life, b) you can’t just pull your phone apart to understand how it works, c) we want the Box itself to be part of the experience, and d) it is also an educational element of the whole idea.

I’m still not sure if we’ll patent the hardware design, but I at least wanted to establish a state of the art on the annotation-on-the-thing idea with this blog post. That might mean we get totally stiffed by some giant megacorp, which would obviously SUCK, but, I prefer to radiate generous intent.

New Commission: International Slavery Museum

Photo of the 3D prints and postcards that make up the collection
The Transatlantic Slavery and Its Contemporary Significance Collection

We’ve been busy working on many exciting commissions recently and plan to share a few more detailed insights into these over the coming weeks.

One such commission is with the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, a collection we produced along with staff at the museum that explores transatlantic slavery, and its contemporary significance. 

The collection consists of two 3D models and seven postcards and encompasses a range of artefacts from the museum’s collection.  These include objects that would have been touched by African slaves, street signs connecting Liverpool to the slave trade, and contemporary art pieces.

Photo of lighting rig and sculpture being scanned
Our rig for doing 3D photogrammetric capture

After settling on an object list, Charlie travelled up to the museum to 3D scan the two objects that were to be 3D printed. These were the Olaudah Equiano sculpture – a brilliant sculpture of writer, abolitionist and a former enslaved African, Olaudah Equiano by sculptor Christy Symington, and a Bamana mask – a type of mask used in Bamana culture used in traditional initiation societies in order to pass into adulthood. We printed them out in some brilliant bright yellow PLA, and were glad that so much detail of the original, including the shape of Africa on Olaudah’s back, broken shackles, and an enslaved female figure from the Brookes slave ship diagram were all visible on the print!

A photograph of the 3D printed bust of Equiano

The audio in the collection incorporates narration from staff members including education demonstrators, curators, volunteers, and youth ambassadors. It’s great to hear such a variety of expert voices talk about the objects in such depth. Here’s a sample of one object in the collection, a ‘Talking Drum’, described by Yaz, one of the museum’s education demonstrators:

Drum, 20th Century, Akan, Ghana
‘The Talking Drum’

An important distinction the collection highlights is the range of material held at the museum. This includes not only original objects but contemporary artworks too such as the Olaudah Equiano sculpture and The Cockle Pickers’ Tea Service.

‘Made in 2007 to commemorate 200 years since Britain enacted a law to outlaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The artwork references the original African victims, whilst also remembering twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay Lancashire in 2004. These people were contemporary slaves. A reminder that the slave trade is still alive in the twenty first century.’

Paul Scott’s ‘Cumbrian Blue(s), The Cockle Pickers’ Tea Service’ (2007)

We’re chuffed with how the set neatly encapsulate the museum’s broad collection, and that the box will be used to help increase awareness and understanding of the important stories it has to tell.

We can’t wait to hear how they get on with the box in the coming months!