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.

Au revoir, Tom

It’s with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our brilliant compadre, Thomas Flynn.

Tom and I began working together back in March of 2015 as we made The Small Museum V1 together with Harriet Maxwell. I was immediately impressed by his talent, care and thoroughness. When I incorporated the company in October 2015, it was a no-brainer to ask Tom to join me as co-founder.

He’s so good, in fact, he was offered a job too good to refuse by the crew at Sketchfab. We wish him all the best leading their growing Cultural Heritage program.

Tom, we’ll miss your warmth and talent, and we couldn’t have come so far without you, mate. Thank you.

Here’s a link to Tom’s Sketchfab profile, in case you’d like to follow what he’s up to over there. We certainly will be!

Museum in a Box in print!

A little while back, Alex Bate from the Raspberry Pi Foundation discovered us through The Planets box Tom made over a weekend to experiment with a new object form factor, and public domain content, Holst’s The Planets.

Box Prototype No.13 – The Planets from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

It was lovely to get a note from Alex wanting to find out more, and even better to host her at our office to meet and talk about everything, and write an article for MagPi, the magazine published by the Foundation.

cover of MagPi issue 54But, what was absolutely the best and a thrill for this little crew, was to walk across the street to the local newsagent and buy as many copies of MagPi #54, and turn to the amazing four-page spread Alex wrote about us!!

MagPi at the office!

And as a special bonus, Alex also included an image in the article that can trigger one of our Augmented Reality experiments!

So, thanks to Alex, Raspberry Pi and MagPi for this brilliant article! (I’ve sent a copy to my parents.) 🙂

Reflections on 2016

We’ve been working on Museum in a Box for just over a year now. We have made lots of prototypes, talked to all sorts of people, and had lots of exciting adventures. This is a little late coming, but Tom and I wanted to consciously reflect on last year’s work as we swing around to planning 2017 (which I’ll write about a bit later).

We’ve chosen a set of particular highlights that we thought stood out, and noted some casual reactions to them… Hope you enjoy the format 🙂

We were also pleased as punch to host Imogen Piper, a design student from Goldsmith’s, and Charlie Cattel-Killick, a sustainable product design graduate from Falmouth University who we ended up bringing into the fold!

Box highlights

  • First commission!
    Anne’s Big Stuff from the British Museum

    • George: When you’re starting something, it’s so helpful to have simple, unconditional support. Thanks to Russell for thinking of us.
    • Tom: This was great to kick start our production process and get us thinking about collections and the juxtaposition of object and content.
  • Ancient Egypt, Daily Lives
    British Museum demo box

    • George: A tiny insect tries to bite a huge beast. Thanks to Lizzie and Chris for not squishing us immediately, but allowing us to nibble for a bit. 😀
    • Tom: A nice first step working with a biggie. An excercise in designing 3D replicas from scratch and we got to test the box with some real-life museum kids!
  • Frogs in a Box
    Smithsonian demo box

    • George: Our first remote deployment. Very exciting to see a photo of the box in Washington DC.
    • Tom: Another stellar commision for us! Extremely grateful to Martin and Sara for believing in our potential.
  • The Planets

    • George: It was such a thrill to see Tom make this. A completely new form factor, and public domain content.
    • Tom: Sometimes it’s fun to run with a simple idea and this got a good public reaction. Bonus!
  • I See Wonder
    • George: Dreaming about a large pilot around the Smithsonian Libraries “I See Wonder” program (20 schools across 20 US states, working with kids on design, too) gave us a real taste of how big this thing could get, and stretched us handily considering such a big deployment.
    • Tom: Seeing what happens when we match our design and tech with Sara Cardello’s learning framework was pretty inspirational tbh!
  • MOO collaboration
    • George: We always knew we’d need help with distribution of boxes, and MOO’s NFC tech was right up our alley. Thanks to Chad, Phil, and Richard for supporting our crazy schemes!
    • Tom: Another nice (and ongoing) match: MOO make lovely paper products with embedded NFC that plays nice with our Brains. Plus we get to hang out with packaging expert Phil Thomas.

Select Clients & Projects

  • Cuming Museum
    • George: One of our first pieces of work that went from original objects to prints, thanks to Tom’s amazing 3D chops.
    • Tom: A nice validation of how 3D scanning can create access to the inaccessible and an amazing glimpse into how hard small museum staff work to connect people to heritage.
  • Science Museum
    • George: All sorts of opportunities here, from in-gallery display to outreach. Plus, they have an enigma machine.
    • Tom: Feels good that museum education staff here are exploring how 3D & interactive can be used in their work.
  • Smithsonian!
    • George: Part of our 2016 strategy was to try to work directly with big museums. Proud to say our “Frogs in a Box” box achieved this goal.
    • Tom: Wuuuut?! Yes this is true and makes me very happy.
  • First custom PCB
    • George: Even though the PCB is quite small, this was an exciting step for me. I absolutely love our physical progress bar feature, and was equally thrilled when Adrian suggested a custom board to support it! I should probably make some jewellry.
    • Tom: Adrian is a genius and made this look so simple! Inspirational and functional 🙂
  • Tiny micro:bit code contribution
    • George: We had been thinking integration with micro:bit would be good for us — probably like lots of other people! — because it has been so well distributed across the country. Still thinking that.
    • Tom: It was amazing to have Tom and Michal from Microsoft Research (!) in our studio, taking us through the possibilities of connecting our Brains to the micro:bit – and then making it happen!
  • Slippery travel crap / VHNIreland video
    • George: A mixture of deep regret and happiness because Tom and I made a good video to play at the talk we missed. Funny how adversity can produce lots of smiles 🙂
    • Tom: We were invited, we prepared, we missed the plane, we made a video, we were there in spirit. VHN are lovely people!

Selected Presentations

    • Lancaster Arts Additive Manufacturing Workshop
      • George: I really enjoyed meeting the folks around this workshop, particularly the amazing 3D printing engineers at Lancaster. Thanks to Richard and Caroline for inviting me!
    • Music Tech Fest
      • Tom: An exercise in capturing an event and working with (very clever) young people at the event in Berlin.
    • Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage (FARO)
      • George: Great to visit Brussels to talk about our work and “virtual heritage”. Nice to have Lizzie Edwards as my travel companion, too.

All in all, a pretty good year! Can’t wait to build on what we consider to be a great success. It’s also important to recognise and celebrate the efforts of Adrian McEwen, our brilliant technical partner from The North, who is responsible for much of the hardware-related development we’ve done this year (and some software too). Thanks, Adrian!

Developing an educational strategy

We’re a core team of designers. We’re not trained educators. While each of us has had quite a bit of exposure to museums, from within and without, and indeed have taught, both kids and adults, with Museum in a Box, we’re trying to improve on a very old idea, of museums’ handling collections being used as learning aids. That’s meant a crash course in the vast landscape of education. Boy, is it HUGE.

Fairly early on, I came up with a matrix-y thing to illustrate what I think are the main segments that our boxes might fit into. You can see it’s a combination of finished or DIY boxes, in a classroom or retail environment.

So, you have a spectrum between a finished box and a DIY box, and you might find one of these in either a classroom, or a retail space like a museum shop.

finished box might contain objects and their stories that are very directly tied to a specific curriculum area and its learning outcomes. This box might be targeted towards younger students, or at least written/designed for a specific age group or key stage.

A DIY box might be used as a teaching device for slightly older students, perhaps high school age, who are starting to dive deep into design/tech subject areas. In this case, you might not purchase anything physical, but only digital and schematic things. Students would put together the entire thing, from configuring the Brain, to writing the content, to producing the content, to printing the objects, to making the container, etc. We like this approach because the kids could learn a thing or two about history or art or science as they’re constructing a product. It feels like great cross-pollinatory learning, and the teachers we’ve talked about it agree.

You could see either of these boxes also existing in a retail environment. We’d love to make a box to accompany an exhibition, so instead of that spectacularly unsatisfying experience of only being about to buy one or two postcards of what you’ve just seen, you could buy a box that lets you delve deep into every aspect of the exhibition, including perhaps even how it was made. You take it back home and can spend time. We also like imagining this type of box in a pre/visit/post context… maybe the box could be sent to schools before the students visit your museum, so they can be familiar with what they’ll see before they arrive. Once they’ve come and seen things, they could produce their own impressions of it all, and make their Museum in a Box play that instead of the Official Point of View.

Personally, I’m also curious about the collision of Museum in a Box with Design/Tech because, to me at least, it feels like lots of the tech projects out there suffer a little from a lack of content, or that it’s engineering for engineering’s sake? But, then you watch videos of kids making electric guitars with a  micro:bit and maybe that proves me wrong in an instant.

Each of these types of boxes and their associated activities and work leads me to a concept we bumped into in the course of last year. As we were working with Sara Cardello, Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, on a pilot partnership, we discovered the idea of 21st Century Skills. As I understand it, the general initiative was formed in 2002, as a coalition of the business community, education leaders and policymakers who were determined to:

[put] 21st century readiness at the centre of US K-12 education and to kick-start a national conversation on the importance of 21st century skills for all students.

Framework for 21st Century Learning

While there is certainly still emphasis placed on “mastery of fundamental subjects” like English or Maths, 21st century themes are introduced too, around information / media / tech, learning and innovation (and importantly, improvisation), and broader life/career skills.

It’s about setting students on a course to build muscles around things like cogent reasoning, evidence collection, critical thinking and analytical communication, all of which are surely useful when it comes to investigating cultural description and points of view generated in certain context.

  • You can see the skills outlined in the P21 Framework. There’s a ton of documentation on the site too. Lots to explore.

3D Museums: Tactile learning, greater access

Over the last year or so, we’ve also been steadily learning more about object-based learning, and we think it fits in especially well with the overall tenets of 21st century skills, combined with Museum in a Box. Object-based learning is used at the British Museum too, with school groups that come to visit. With thanks to Lizzie Edwards for sharing her knowledge in this area with us.

The main benefits of using objects in learning, according to UCL Museums and Collections, are that they:

  • provide a direct link with a topic or ‘the past’ and can really enhance young people’s interest in and understanding of a topic/subject.
  • encourage learners to use all their senses – especially touch, sight and smell.
  • help to develop the important skill of drawing conclusions based on an examination of evidence, together with an understanding of the limitations and reliability of evidence.
  • are ideal for generating group and class discussion.
  • promote the value of museums and encourage young people to visit museums and galleries with their families to further their learning.

One of the diagrams I found in my research is a handy glanceable thing to help you quickly understand that object-based learning is about asking interesting questions of an object, from lots of different angles… This diagram has been recreated — mostly so it fitted in with the colour scheme of a presentation I was giving! — from the superb report (in PDF format): Learning Through Culture: The DfES Museums and Galleries Education Programme: A guide to good practice (2002)

I presented these rough ideas in Brussels in late November at the Faro’s “Heritage, virtual and augmented” conference. Here are the slides (or a version with presenter notes):

Bright Lights

We continue to research and look to leaders in innovative learning around the world as we ourselves try to learn more about how Museum in a Box can actually help museum educators and teachers, and not hinder them,

We find ourselves studying systems like:

  • diy.org – “DIY is a safe online community for kids to discover new passions, level up their skills, and meet fearless geeks just like them.” Who says education can’t co-exist with creativity??
  • Technology Will Save Us – We’ve been especially impressed by the generosity of the TWSU Education folks. All their stuff in published online, and let me tell you, we’ve been studying it! 🙂
  • AltSchool – “creating a 21st century work environment for our educators”, “supporting, rather than disempowering, with technology”.

There’s a long way to go, but broadly speaking we’re liking the feel of a framework that blends object-based learning and 21st century skills as our starting point.

We’ve already written a job description for an Education Producer – we know it’s a gap – but happily learning about this new, huge environment in the meantime. If you know of a good group or person who might be interested to fund a position like that (maybe a contract to the tune of £10k?) then please tell us who we should talk to!

 

Failure to get to Cork = virtual presentation for #vhnireland

Last Friday, Tom and I had the best intentions in the world of presenting to the attendees of Virtual Heritage Network Ireland in Cork. We were all set to talk about Letting Objects Speak for Themselves, and show folks some working boxes. It was also going to be my first visit to Ireland! But, our journey ended at Stansted, after a remarkable slurry of travel woes I shan’t bore you with. Suffice it to say that everything that could have gone wrong, did.

With our tails between our legs, Tom and I knew we wanted to send something in our place, so we headed back to HQ to see if we could make a video version of what we’d planned to talk about. Fate steps in again – we’d both not brought our office keys! (And Charlie was off at the Wellcome’s 3d4ever meeting!) Gah!

Luckily, the little office next door was open, so we were able to suck the office wifi, and we put together a version of what we would have said on stage to send over. Phew!

Museum in a Box – Letting Objects Speak for Themselves – VHN Ireland from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

We were very happy to watch people via Twitter telling us they enjoyed it. A soothing balm after a shitty day, and overall, a helpful result!

 

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

Our first branded hardware!

Over the past nine months or so, we’ve been able to show Museum in a Box to hundreds of people, either in our office or at events, and the response has been fantastic.

It’s also been ongoing informal user research, and we’ve had the chance to watch people figure out how to use it. We’ve varied our description of the mechanics and amount of setup, and observed (very casually) little sticking points. One of the main things we noticed is that it wasn’t clear when the Brain was ready to go. The Raspberry Pi 2 takes a while to start up and get ready to read an object, about 30 seconds, actually. So, we’ve added a physical progress bar to the box to help people know when it’s ready. It even says READY!

Adrian soldered the first version, which you can see here. We also adjusted the layout of the box to simplify it a bit. All you really need to know about is power, volume and when it’s ready.

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And we put a BIG GREEN LIGHT at the end, which is fun.

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I’ve also been thinking about what kind of simple instructions we’ll need to include in a box that doesn’t have us driving it. Hopefully something like this, with just three steps would be good.

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And then, Adrian took a very exciting step and ordered us our very own Printed Circuit Board (PCB) to drive the progress bar from now on.

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It’s possible I’m overexcited about the progress bar, but, I love it!