Wow! And, thank you

Well, our first crowdfunding campaign is over, and, it was a success! The campaign was shaped around kickstarting our co-design pilot for a new version of Museum in a Box called Make Your Own

Now that we’ve been building bespoke commissions for institutions like Smithsonian Libraries, British Museum, and the V&A, our technology concept is proven. Our hardware design for the Box is now at Version 1, and the software platform we’ve developed to configure Collections and Boxes works. So, the Make Your Own product can build on these resources, and we can send kits out that connect the Box, some NFC stickers, instructions on how to make a great Collection, and the software platform. While we intend to continue making commissions for people, we want Make Your Own to be our path to scaling Museum in a Box, letting a thousand museums bloom in classrooms, libraries, museums and homes around the world. 

map of our pilot groups
This is a map showing where all our Make Your Own kits are headed. Every continent except Antarctica!

Back in June, we enlisted 40 different groups around the world to participate in the pilot, and we’re so excited that we can now order all the hardware we’ll need to build those 40 Boxes, and reach out to all 40 groups personally to crack on with user research about their environments and how they’ve been thinking about Museum in a Box. Here is a list of all the participants: a great mix of teachers, libraries, parents, museums, and even a farm!

So, we must take a moment to thank all our Crowdfunder supporters. We simply couldn’t have kicked off this ambitious pilot without this injection of capital, so thank you. You’ve really made a huge difference to our capacity to bring this thing to life!

Our Supporters

Naomi Alderman, Cristóbal Álvarez, Nicky Birch, Alex Blood, Julie Bottrell, Stewart Butterfield, Sara Rouse Cardello, Daniel Catt, Daniel Cohen, Rachel Coldicutt, Blaine Cook, Henry Cooke, Eric Costello, russell davies, Taryn Davies, Katie Day, Martin Devereux, Molly Ditmore, Imwen Eke, Joanna Ellis, Rebekah Ford, Anne and Forbes Fowlie, Belinda and James Fowlie, David C Frazer, Rachel L Frick, Katharine Handel, Claire Hansford, Chris Heathcote, James Jefferies, Courtney Johnston, D Jones, Greta Lake, Claire Lanyon, Mai Le, Annette Mees, Fiona Miller, Evelyn Neufeld, Nick O’Leary, Margaret and Jeff Oates, Daniel Pett, Jacqueline Pease, Jennifer Phillips-Bacher, Anna Pickard, Kim Plowright, Annelynn Pyck, Clare Reddington, Jo Roach, Frankie Roberto, Cassie Robinson, Sophie Sampson, Dinah Sanders, Nick Stanhope, Jo Stichbury, ben terrett, Jennifer Tharp, Ben Vershbow, Matt Webb, Gill Wildman, Simon Wistow… and several folks who wish to remain anonymous. You shall forever be enshrined on our About Us page.

On a personal note, even though I’ve had a ton of fun developing this business over the last three years or so, and I think we’re heading in a great direction, it’s also been bloody hardand it’s been so lovely to have friends and family support and endorse what I’m trying to do here. Really, it’s such a boost. Thank you.

(And, if you’d still like to support us, please do! The Crowdfunder page has now switched to “always on” mode, so you’re very welcome to make a donation there at any time.)

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.

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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.

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!

Museum in a Box joins the Spring 2018 cohort of the Young Foundation’s accelerator programme

This is just a short post to let you know that we’re absolutely thrilled to be a part of the Spring 2018 cohort of the Young Foundation’s accelerator programme, the Young Academy! It’s a short post because we’re learning all kinds of useful things about working on our business plan, moulding our mission towards educational equity, and getting ready for the pitch day at the end of the program.

After a very busy and productive first six months of this year building and delivering our recent commissions with The British Museum, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s a great time to step back and zoom out a little to refactor and realign our goals. The Young Foundation could not be a better fit, in terms of their mission to tackle major social challenges through research and social innovation.

It’s also be great to meet and hear from the other founders in the cohort. There’s nothing like realising that you’re not alone in your own set of challenges, and that lots of entrepreneurs out there are facing lots of the same things (and succeeding in spite of them!). It’s exciting to start to believe that what we’re doing has real potential and that we might even be able to attract investment.

I’ll likely post a few more updates as our realignment and thinking coalesce into a stronger story…

New Commission: British Museum & National Museum of Iraq Partnership – A Box goes to Baghdad!

The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was founded in 1926 as the Baghdad Antiquities Museum, and its first director was Gertrude Bell, an important figure in the early development of research collaborations between Iraq and British archaeologists. I first became aware of threat to, and looting of, museums in the region after discovering the UNESCO handbook called Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, which I’ve made use of even in more fanciful museum explorations here in London.

Four museum staffers from Baghdad have just completed eight weeks in London in a top-to-bottom digitisation training program at the British Museum. The program was designed to develop skills in the digitisation of heritage collections, especially archives, and to make best use of digital resources to engage audiences in Iraq and beyond. We were thrilled when the BM team reached out to commission a Museum in a Box to encapsulate and represent the training.

We were excited to meet Samah (Educator), Safa (Photographer), Mustafa (Curator) and Thamir (Conservator) from the Iraqi Museum. Charlie and I visited the British Museum a couple of times, to help with object selection for the collection, and digitisation tips. We also helped gather and edit the audio scripts the team had written and recorded themselves, as part of the box production process. With the support of Jennifer Wexler at the BM, who helped prepare the 3D models for us, we also arranged to print four objects in 3D, and getting another 20 or so postcards printed and set up with their shiny yellow acrylic box. The resulting collection was a blend of objects from both institutions – we’re wondering how often that’s happened to date…

New Commission – British Museum & the National Museum of Iraq from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

The training program was celebrated at a morning event in the wondrous Arched Room at the British Museum on April 13th. Each of the trainees gave a short talk about what they learned, and Thamir and Mustafah gave a live demo of the new Box! Apparently there were gasps in the audience, and we now have an (un)official endorsement from rockstar curator, Irving Finkel 🙂

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Special outcomes for us

  • Our first deployment into another country, Iraq. (We were certain to offer to perform any technical follow-up in person!)
  • The first collection we’ve made that draws together objects from more than one institution
  • Our first commission in another language, Arabic (unless you count Frog as another language?)
  • We also have our first translation of the “starter kit” greeting scripts used in every box, translated by Safa and Mary (who was on the BM project team)!

Here’s the finished Arabic intro that plays when you first fire up the Box:

Hooray!

Raspberry Pi Stories

We were pleased as punch to get a note from Raspberry Pi asking if we’d like to be the subject of their Stories video series, and the Artefacts in the Classroom article and video have come out today!

Thanks very much to Alex Bate and Brian O’Halloran at Raspberry Pi for making this brilliant video!

And, we’ll be at the upcoming Raspberry Fields event in Cambridge 30 June-1 July if you’d like to have a shot at it in person (and happen to be in Cambridge).

Looking back on 2017

Last year was a huge second year in the life of our small company. I remember meeting my friend Tom for a drink one day, and as I told him about everything, he noted that I’d begun calling us a startup. It’s been a busy, interesting and largely really productive year, and I thought you might like to see all the stuff we’ve done.

Our 2017 goals

I’m a big fan of the dictum “aim low, succeed often.” If you’re able to construct goals that you know you can reach, you might just be more satisfied. We set three goals for the year, and we’ve practically reached all of them. Along three themes: user research, sales, and product design.

  1. Develop educational strategy
    As we’ve talked with more teachers, it’s become much clearer that we need to continue developing and refining our educational strategy. We’re big fans of the idea of 21st Century Skills and Object-Based Learning, and broadly feel like those two themes are a great fit with what we’re hoping to achieve. We’re doing a great pilot deployment with the Education team at Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) in 2018, and that’ll be our first major unattended deployment, in about 10 schools across the USA. We’re looking forward to collaborating with the teachers and students around our general materials, as well as the fabulous SIL content. We also have a list of teachers who’ve expressed interest in joining in the fun. The challenge there is creating enough Brains and Collections to be able to send around!
  2. Sell something
    We’re calling 2017 a big success, largely due to the fact that we’ve completed box commissions with lots of great partners. There’s more information below on these, and how they’ve worked out. We hope to grow our commissions program into 2018 and beyond, not only for income for the company, but to build content that consumers might like to make use of down the track. I also feel personally that, as a small startup, having actual customers differentiates us somewhat from the inflated types of tech startups you might find sniffing around for investment. Even though we’re not exactly profitable yet, having customers is a big win!
  3. Declare Box V1.0
    We’re so close to this, largely thanks to Charlie’s superb CAD skills. We call the container box that sits around the Raspberry Pi and other peripherals (NFC reader, speaker etc) the Skull. We’re nearly at V1.0, which is brilliant. Keep your eyes peeled for a blog post about all that soon.

Things that didn’t quite work or have been difficult

I’ve been struck this year by two major challenges:

  1. We are able to move at light speed compared with the traditional cultural institutions out there. The “sales cycle” )or ability to move quickly on a small purchasing decision) is sometimes months long for museums and libraries, and that’s hurt us a bit, since we’re bootstrapping our operations at this stage.  But, we’re no different from most small businesses in that regard, as cash flow is always a challenge.
  2. It’s often a David vs Goliath dynamic. This mostly relates to work like making agreements with large, old institutions. It takes a lot of energy for a little shop like ours to process and respond to standard terms and conditions from huge organisations. Even though we’ve also been developing our own documents and agreements as templates, it’s very rare that we can engage without also signing a giant contract that’s not especially written for a startup at our stage. And then if we have adaptations or amendments we’d like to incorporate, that takes a long time, too.  I am fantasising about perhaps doing a small conference called David vs Goliath, to discuss and raise consciousness around these challenges, and perhaps even to develop some strategies around mitigation. (Let me know if that sounds interesting!)

There were a few other specific things that were tricky last year too…

  • Science Museum tender – how to measure reach? We were thrilled to be asked to submit a tender around building “Science Capital”, but were essentially overlooked because the (current) cost of sending boxes and objects into schools is very small if compared to the potential of “digital reach”. Our contention, though, is that the quality of the interaction generated by tactile, social interaction is really different from a hit on a website. There’s lots to think through about measuring stickiness and success and engagement with Museum in a Box.
  • Innovate UK – We put our hat in the ring for the 3rd Open Round of funding from Innovate UK. It took ages to put the proposal together, and apparently, we scored a “70” (out of 100?). It was a bit disheartening to see the feedback from the assessors, since it was split 50/50 between “this is a brilliant idea, we should fund it” and “I don’t know how this benefits the taxpayer”. But, the silver lining was that the act of creating the proposal helped us refine our thinking around business models, and how we describe ourselves, which has been useful.
  • Fast hardware iteration – it’s hard not having Adrian in the office with us, but in Liverpool (which I’m sure he’ll never leave!). Even though we’ve made some strides in the design and layout of the Brain, each time there’s an update or a treat from Liverpool, it makes me wonder how much further we could have come, and faster, if we could afford to have this work happen much more. It’s all related to general company cash flow and where to place effort, and again, our commissions are what’s helping us drive all sorts of work forward, so we look forward to more of those into 2018!
  • Software development – Similarly, it’s fast approaching the time when we need a better public-facing UI to help people buy their own boxes, configure them, and even make their own. Finding resource to fund freelance software folks is hard! (And I’ve personally found this part difficult, since my background is in software, and a) I am most useful when I can pair directly with an engineer, and b) I know fairly well how much work there is to do on all this.)

Fleshing out the business plan

As I mentioned, we have a pretty good strategy around how to build out other products, and the three main products we’re thinking about (or selling now) are: Commissions, Make Your Own, and Direct-to-Consumer collections. As we continue to build our commissions portfolio, we also want to package and sell what you’d need to make your own box (object selection, content research/production, and tech stuff). There’s huge demand for Make Your Own from teachers, and we feel like it might tickle the holy grail of actual cross-curricular learning if we can get it right. Then, we’re hoping to allow anyone to buy a Brain and some Collections, and we’d like to design and develop some of those Collections ourselves, to be best-of-breed examples for everyone, and also a possible container for new collaborations with writers, artists and other “agents” all over the place.

There are so many ideas that easily attach themselves to this Museum in a Box idea it can be a challenge to focus on the right next steps! That’s another reason why the commissions are useful to us, because as well as developing the features of the product, we’re also able to do market/user research with our commissioning partners, to learn what they need and want in a partnership like ours.

We’d love to do a first release of Make Your Own mid-2018. That’s a goal and a half for this year!

Boxes

We now have a list of 26 boxes in total in our archive. Some are simple prototypes, like our Statues of Women in London, and others are full-blown commissions. This year, we’ve created 10 new box sets.

  1. Jewish Museum London – a custom-designed box to house 3D prints and postcards remembering Jewish service people in the wars
  2. Healing Through Archives – a brilliant box with archivist, Abira Hussein, exploring “mother tongue” perspectives on Somali objects and audio held at the British Museum and British Library
  3. London Borough of Camden – AHRC-funded program to increase awareness of Camden’s art collection, included several workshops with kids, and culminated in an exhibition which drew together original works, 3D prints with artists’ impressions, and recordings about works made by kids in workshops
  4. Phonics – a prototype idea, to help young people learning to read to understand and sound phonics
  5. How the Ear Works – a quick box Charlie prepared for our pitch to the Science Museum using vintage illustration and audio, and a jigsaw element to help you see all the bits of the human ear
  6. Greek Gods & Goddesses – we’re developing a new product line, where we would like to sell boxes direct to the public, containing engaging narrative and fun 3D/2D materials from institutions around the world already making their collections available for open reuse
  7. Haunted Objects – our visiting summer intern, Michelle, helped put together a first prototype of what a box of scary objects might be. We learned a ton about  bad narratives and what we’d need to do to make this really fun
  8. Climate Change in a Box – a new commission with Jon Christensen, adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, and centred on the Los Angeles area, in particular the tar pits at La Brea
  9. Smithsonian!!!!! – Oh, wow! After nearly 18 months in development, we’re just beginning to start on two separate grants with Smithsonian Institution Libraries in Washington DC. We’ll be making 10 boxes to distribute to 10 schools across the USA, and then delivering two different sets of objects to each class, over the course of 4-6 weeks. We’re so excited to connect with the teachers and students who will be using the box, and also curious about building this first step into a much wider deployment!

It’s been really interesting and revealing to see how our commissions (and prototypes) can fit comfortably in the construct that is Museum in a Box. It sounds cheesy to say, but you really can fill this idea with anything that works for you, and we look forward to sealing the deal on our current set of leads for more commissions into 2018, so stay tuned on that!

Brain-raising
photo of skull pieces laid out for constructionWhile we’re still working on getting good names for all the bits, we’ve been calling the hardware that you place objects on the Brain. Therefore, we call the casing of the brain the Skull. We had a ton of fun earlier in the year putting together six new brains, with their skulls, to be deployed for our various commissions, and our use for demonstrations and events and such. We’re looking forward to our next Brain-raising session in January 2018, so if you happen to be in London and interested to come and help out for a day, please get in touch.

Collaborators

Gill Wildman has been a fantastic supporter and design guide for our work this year.  Her incredible experience in listening and questioning and designing for years has been such a useful resource. Thanks Gill.
Ben McGuire has helped us with all our legal challenges this year, and co-developed our agreement docs and thinking around resource re-use and potential for royalties and such with our commissioning partners. Thank you, Ben!
MOO HQ has been a generous sponsor of our endeavours, helping us with printing resources, and expertise around packaging. Thanks to Chad, Phil T, and Richard for everything.
Pango Studios is a company full of talented artists who we’ve sub-contracted to make some of our commissions really sing. Their skills with spray paint and brushes really makes 3D prints look amazing, and we’re looking forward to more! Thanks, Pango! Onwards.
We were pretty clear from the start that we didn’t particularly want to get into the 3D printing business, so were really happy to meet Stever from Amfori, who has helped us with printing this year. He’s also up for doing experiments around materiality, which we’re keen to start on soon.
We’ve also had a ton of student/post-grad visits: Kate Chan, Michelle Wong, Rosie Parker, Lozana Rossenova, Angeliki Symeonidi, Angela Difede. Thanks especially to Michelle for helping design the first instantiation of a Haunted Objects box!
Also thanks to Michelle, for connecting us to Winns Primary in Walthamstow. We really enjoyed our play testing there, and were happy to leave two boxes there for a week to see what the kids did (and what the teachers thought).

Thanks too, to Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, for her continued support of the company, both with offering us speaking gigs ar the brilliant @IoTLondon meetup, and offering us a table at her Christmas pop-up. People really liked Museum in a Box! If only we could sell them one!

Looking forward to some collaborations around inclusion and accessibility in 2018, particularly with Nicolas Bonne and the Tactile Universe program @ Portsmouth University, and Stacy Rowe, geometry and accessible design @ RNIB.

Birds of a feather

It’s both exciting and a bit nervous-making that we’ve spotted other folk doing similar work in the same space, or nearby. Overall, we think this indicates some trending movement back towards tactility and object-based interactions and learning, and gathering different points of view, all of which are central to what we’re doing. It also feels like the race is on!
Work we’ve seen that looks great includes:

Press

photo of the Raspberry Pi magazine on our work table surrounded by boxes and objects and other office detritus

It was a thrill to be picked up and interviewed by some of our friends in the press this year! Even in print, if you don’t mind!

Looking forward…

So, to sum up, our 2018 is looking pretty good already. We’re about to move from Bloomsbury to a new (and more cost-effective!) office in Hoxton. We’re looking forward to more lunch options, and seeing if there are simpatico companies nearby who might like to collaborate on some of the hardware stuff, laser cutting, or even software development!

We’re watching the Young Foundation Academy program with interest. It’s one of the few “accelerators” that has a focus on social good, and importantly, measuring the effectiveness of companies in that sector.
We’re really excited about a possible collaboration with Stacy at the  Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). We’re talking about prototyping a box around geometry, and it just so happens while Stacy is the liaison between RNIB and external companies, she’s also a mathematician with mad skills and a ton of personality!
If we could do a first release of Make Your Own product sometime in the summer that would be Super Fantastic!
And, there are almost too many leads for commissions… this is obviously a good problem to have.

Out and About

Visiting museums, libraries, and archives is an important part of our work, and last week we had a cracker! As well as talking with The Big Archive near Kew, we visited the Wellcome Collection’s Museum of Modern Nature, and had a thrilling day at the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome library. It’s a treat being based in Bloomsbury since we’re so close to some of the world’s great institutions. (We’ve also popped over to the Petrie Museum of Egyptology and the Grant Museum of Zoology just around the corner at UCL.)

Here we are at The Big Archive near Kew:

We liked how this is different from the classical forms of, say, the US National Archives.

We were on a roll that day, so then went to visit the Wellcome’s Museum of Modern Nature exhibition, where contributors chose an object important to them, and which reflected a sense of nature for them. All of us thought this exhibition would be especially well suited to being a Museum in a Box, since it was a set of curious objects, many of which had an audio track to listen to. It was lovely to hear each contributor’s voice in situ describing the object’s meaning in the first person.

A tiny piece of note paper meticulously filled over time.
The story of a father collecting for his son, and then for himself

Whenever I’m at the Wellcome Collection, I always pop in to the Reading Room there. It’s a brilliant space, and impeccably designed. You can touch lots of stuff and read everything and it’s quiet and fantastic, and frankly makes me envious of the wealth of Wellcome. One of the things they do very well, and simply, is to make high-quality facsimiles of old books. It’s really satisfying to flip through them…

On that note, a few weeks ago Charlie and I visited an exhibition at Somerset House called The Learned Society of Extra Ordinary Objects, which was in a similar vein to the Wellcome exhibition, though the objects were slightly surreal and felt personal in a different way. (Also lent itself well to a Museum in a  Box!)

Then, on the Thursday last week, we were hosted by Charo at the library of the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, this time with a research mission. We’re interested in the idea of a Museum in a Box that contains a series of correspondence between two people. As you experience the box, letters could be delivered to you in approximately real time, as if you were the recipient(s). So, we went to the library to investigate some examples of correspondence.

Portrait of Charles Thomas Newton
Charles Thomas Newton

Charo rightly asked us for some direction about what she could present to us, and we discovered the character called Charles Newton, who was the first Keeper of the department when it formed in the 1860s. He was a fascinating figure with a huge network of contacts, including private collectors like Castellani (2,750+ things), and archaeologists like J. T. Wood (2,589 things excavated by), who was responsible for the first excavations at Ephesus.

The acquisition history of the British Museum is a personal interest of mine, so it was a real thrill to see, touch, and read some of the letters sent to and by Newton in his quest to build out the incredible Greek and Roman collections at the BM.

All in all, an excellent week of adventuring outside the office. Highly recommended!

This office produces lots of things

Today, we’re working on two prototype boxes: Greek Gods & Goddesses, and Haunted Objects. The research-y stage of making boxes is one of my favourites, because you get to range far and wide around a single object, in this case, we’re looking at a lei niho palaoa from Hawaii, which we found in the collection of The Met in New York.

Then I’m all of a sudden learning about Kamehameha, a great chief in Hawaii, reading Captain Cook’s journals, and looking at photographs of a female chief named Mele Kaupoko wearing her lei niho palaoa.

I became interested in the question, “what did the object witness” during its lifetime… who wore it? where was it kept? what did it hear? who touched it? how did it end up in The Met? These questions led me to explore some Hawaiian music, and once you pass the ukulele song we all know and delve deeper, you find prayer songs like these…

We’re also working on the idea that each box will also contain a character, to help guide you around the set of objects, so we need to make some new figures we can print to include with the box. Of course, I volunteered my body to the cause, and Charlie has set about making a 3D model of me. I am in love with the work in progress of making a 3D model, especially when you see the object of focus in its surroundings, so shot a quick video so you can see it too:

I just love the look of this sort of thing. I’m surprised there’s not more art made around it.

Sir Ken Robinson: Creativity vs Schools

We spent the end of the day yesterday watching all of Sir Ken’s TED talks. I’m slightly embarrassed to be the 46 millionth human to see his first one from 2006, but there you go.

He speaks about how fostering creativity in kids has been squashed by education systems that are oriented towards testing and standards and entry into university, and not respectful of diverse types of intelligence and different human capacities.

Here are the three talks in case you’d like to watch them:

I was taking notes as we watched them, and here are some highlights that stood out for me:

  • “Creativity is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
  • “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go.”
  • “We don’t grow into creativity. We grow out of it. Or rather, we’re educated out of it.”
  • “Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything.”
  • Intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinct.
  • “Education dislocates people from their natural talents.
  • “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talents, not a singular conception of ability.” How can we reconstitute our sense of ability and intelligence?
  • Lots of education doesn’t feed passion. “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery mechanism.”
  • “If you sit kids down hour after hour doing low grade clerical work it’s not surprising they’ll fidget.”

Feedback from Teachers

Boxes we’ve made to date have been about creating complete sets of objects around a theme like Ancient Egypt: Daily Lives, or Frogs of North America, and, while we definitely think there’s a lot of utility in being able to create a replete set to deliver (perhaps to younger kids), we’ve been exploring ideas around more serialised delivery of box contents, so object-based enquiry builds themes and knowledge over time, prompting students to do independent research as the collection builds.

We’ve also heard over and again from teachers that they see great potential for a type of Museum in a Box that kids could construct themselves. We’d deliver the core elements (Brain/Stickers/Software), and the kids would invent their own sets of objects and content, and make a museum they’re into.

We love this idea — and I think it plays into Robinson’s thread of “learning that’s customised to local circumstances” — so we’d like to let you know we have started R&D on a product line called Make Your Own box as a result.

We’ll need some time, but, we’ve heard clearly that this sort of exploratory, self-directed, cross-curricular exercise would be great for teachers and their students, so we plan to try to meet that demand.

Stay tuned as we pilot this idea – we’ll let you know how we’re getting along! And if you’re a teacher who’s interested to help us during the pilot, please get in touch.