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

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!

Making a Box that reflects the content

 

The paradigm that Museum in a Box uses to connect objects to related content is simple:

  1. Take a Thing.
  2. Put that Thing on a Brain.
  3. Receive lovely and interesting Content.

You can think of Things in the above scenario as ‘keys’ that unlock the context to the object you’re looking at. Sometimes the Thing is a 3D print of a scanned artefact, sometimes it’s a picture postcard and sometimes it’s fun to leave things a bit ambiguous – what is the Thing you’re holding? How does it relate to the Content you’re listening to?

This is what we explored a bit with Prototype No.13, which you can watch a demo of in the above video.

For this Box, we used some public domain audio from The Internet Archive as the Content and decided to try out a form factor for the Things that reflected what you would be listening to but still leaves a lot to the imagination…

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So in case you’ve not guessed yet, we used the Planets Suite by Gustav Holst for this Box, hence our spherical Content keys/triggers. We sourced some half-spheres of  birchwood from eBay, as this seemed like the easiest way to get an RFID tag inside a globe shape. Polystyrene may have been cheaper but we like the look and feel of the plain wood. We slapped an RFID sticker on one half and used wood glue to join this to its counterpart.

Making this prototype was also a good exercise in testing the limits of our tech. It turns out that smaller RFID tags have (maybe unsurprisingly) a shorter pickup range when offered up to the RFID reader we’re currently using. In a quick test, the small tag would not trigger the audio when housed in our 32mm diameter balls (so their range is less than 17mm). Fortunately, upgrading to 25mm tags extended the range of our wee planets to about 2 or 3cm. We also found out that tags only register on the reader if offered in a near parallel orientation (as in the GIF above).

We re-purposed a gift box to house our Raspberry Pi, tag reader, battery, audio speaker & cables and made a simple insert  with holes to hold the planets in a nice formation and another to suspend them over the RFID reader. (Extra special thanks to my partner and her mum for helping with this!)

All in all creating this Box only took about half a day and we’re very pleased with the results 🙂

T.