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.

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!

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.

All boxed up [update]

Our brains have done a fair bit of milage recently with George travelling to LA for the Communicating the Museum conference and Charlie flying over to Belfast to talk at the Digital Tech, Young People & Heritage conference at Ulster Museum and also exhibiting at the British Museum’s 3D Imaging in Cultural Heritage conference.

In preparation we’ve spent a bit of time working on new packaging for what we refer to as the ‘starter box’ because it contains: the brain, an introductory print, and a mains plug; everything you need to get started! Previous versions have been bulky and wasted space which can make travelling with the box more challenging than it need be. We wrote exactly a year ago (gosh!) about our visit to MOO HQ where we worked on packaging ideas with their product design team and having now spent some time designing a new box we wanted to share a brief overview of our packaging evolution and developments:

Statues of Women in London – December 2015

December 2015: Early brain prototype combined with the statues of women around London set. We later decided to separate the brain into an independent starter box because the variation of possible 3D prints and postcards in the box is so great. This gives us more freedom now when packaging up each unique collection. 

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MOO Box – November 2016

November 2016: An experiment developed with Moo Ltd using their plotter machine and a square brain. This included a space for a set of NFC cards.

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February 2017: Starter box comprised of many laser cut layers of card. Solid but used an unnecessary amount of material, was heavy and there was a great deal of wasted space.

An object box made for the Jewish Museum London’s ‘Hearing History’ set

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Render of a foam insert design – July 2017

July 2017: Stacked foam insert, the brain sits above the starter introductory print and plug. We liked this foam design but for small quantities we’d need to laser cut and stack multiple layers which is both time consuming and costly.

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Development of a card insert – October 2017

October 2017: 

In this new design the brain sits above the insert, when you remove the brain the plug and print tucked away underneath are revealed.

We adapted the foam design to allow for the slightly bulkier Rasperry Pi plug. Doing this means we could easily change the plug type and send a starter box to almost anywhere in the world without the need for an adapter… it’s the small things that count!

The box is made out of three parts: the box itself (a), the insert (b) and the tray (c) glued to the underside of the insert. The real challenge was designing an insert that works with the many different plug adapters of the Raspberry Pi universal plug!

Raspberry Pi power adapter

The packaging is a great improvement on the older bulky and heavy box making it much better for sending in the post. Having travelled around with this new box however, we’re now thinking we can make it smaller still!

Hopefully this has been a brief but insightful overview for any packaging nerds out there!

C

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.

Points of Contact: A new box with the London Borough of Camden

The Arts & Tourism team at the London Borough of Camden received funding from Arts Council England to deploy a Museum in a Box as the primary vehicle to engage young people in the Camden Arts Collection.

We made a box that contained eight works from the collection; a mixture of sculptural and two-dimensional pieces. The box travelled widely around Camden, and was part of 13 workshops across the borough, held at Swiss Cottage, Kentish Town, Queens Crescent and Kilburn Centre libraries, and the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The project culminated in Points of Contact: The Camden Art Collection Unboxed, an exhibition at the Swiss Cottage Library Gallery, open until 1st of July 2017.

Creating 3D from 2D
We were curious to try a sort of extrusion of some of the paintings in the box, and Tom worked to literally add a new dimension to works by Derek Jarman and others, to create a tactile version of each of the flat works.

Hands on, helpful user research
For us, a big part of the appeal of this partnership was the opportunity to conduct workshops with kids and their guardians in all the libraries we visited. We learned all sorts of things about putting the box in front of people who’d never seen it before, and faced a few teeth-clenching moments as the kids played with the 3D prints in unexpected ways (like making the Running Table try to pass through Barred Portal, which it turns out isn’t possible).

It was a pleasure to witness that first “what’s this magic thing?” look on people’s faces, and the general ease of use of the box. We also learned that the “cornucopia” display technique we’d used with more adults — where we spread lots of objects out and let people choose their own adventure — resulted in kids just wanting to try every object as quickly as possible to see what they’d say. In the later workshops, that led us to a more contemplative, steady demonstration, where we’d bring out one piece at a time, ask the kids about it, and then boop the object to see what happened.

We met lots of brilliant kids, but must give special mention to The Magnificent Balthazar, who we met at Swiss Cottage. He was very happy to sit with the objects and the box for well over an hour, and took the time to create his own rendition of each of the works in the box, all eight, and showed real artistic talent, even at just five years old! At one of the later workshops, run by artist Esther Springett, Angela & and her son, Lorenzo, came along, and enjoyed it so much they attended a second session. Angela even took the time to write a guest blog post on the Camden arts blog, where she reflected:

With 8 artists to choose from, Lorenzo chose the 3D printed ‘Cubes’ (Carl Heideken, 1973) and I have to say he totally surprised me with his creativity. After feeling the textures of the cubes and listening to an audio response to each object on special micro-chipped postcards, Lorenzo started to develop his own story about ’12 boxes 6 chances’. A 3D print definitely helped him to get a stronger connection with the piece.

It was brilliant to meet Angela and Lorenzo in person too, at the exhibition which opened in early May.

Exhibition!
This project was the first time that Museum in a Box ended up in an exhibition. It seemed a natural fit to exhibit all the prints, postcards and the box in the exhibition space. We created two versions to playback for visitors: the first was the “official” responses created by artists participating in the project, Esther, Ciara, and Jonathan. It was great fun to hear such creative responses coming out of the box when things were booped, instead of just a factual, wall-label-style rendition of information about each work.

The other set of postcards played responses made by the kids in each workshop. There were new stories and interpretations about each work, and, again, it was excellent fun to hear such creative takes on the art.

I must say, I did feel a bit strange about having the box locked down in an exhibition space, because it’s designed to be mobile, but once Charlie and I saw the superb installation Jonathan and Sophie had designed for the gallery space, my initial concerns disappeared quickly. Now we’re wondering how else a box might supplement a more traditional exhibition experience…

A Collaboration
We certainly didn’t complete this box in isolation, and it was a pleasure to collaborate with Sophie Rycroft and Samina Zahir from the Camden Arts team, Caroline Moore at the fabulous GOSH Arts, artist and gallery designer, Jonathan Miller, and last but not least, artist educators Esther Springett and Ciara Brennan, who surprised and delighted us mightily with their creativity and skill with kids.

Design for Disassembly

The design of the Brain has evolved as components have been added, removed and replaced. We are improving accessibility to the tech inside, and coming from a sustainable design background I wanted to challenge myself to produce an experimental Brain where the products’ full lifecycle is factored into its design. So, here’s what I’ve been up to…

The aim was for the Brain to do the following:

  • Provide easy access to the electronics
  • Enable components to be quickly changed or modified
  • Completely disassemble easily
  • No glue!

First came lots of planning, then sketching and then I got to work CAD-ing up the design. Creating the design digitally first was beneficial as it provided the ability to position the components in a virtual space, adding the wires also helped to visualise how crowded the Brain would be.

The most notable change to the design was how the Brain is held together. We currently glue panels with interlocking finger joints, but for this design they slot into channels on the top and bottom and are pulled together with brass standoffs in each corner. We often get asked how the Brains work but it’s not always easy to demonstrate, we therefore laser-cut the panels in plywood and clear acrylic making it clear to see what’s going on within the skull.

Panel flat-lay (excluding mounting nuts/bolts)

After some light sanding the Brain assembled for the first time and the components easily mounted to the dotted grid. Most importantly the feet can be unscrewed and the base panel lifted providing easy access to add and remove parts.

This Brain has enabled us to improve upon components that were appropriate in the past but no longer live up to our requirements. One example is the power socket which was previously glued to a laser cut shim and had a tendency to come loose, we managed to source a panel mount version which now works a treat (see pictures below).

I’m very happy with how well the design turned out, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve disassembled and reassembled it. We’ve primarily been using it as a prototyping Brain to quickly test out components and content but it’s also made us big fans of acrylic and we now have plans for a colourful set of CMYK boxes!

That’s all for now,

C

Making smaller brains

We’ve made about 20 prototype boxes now and have learned a great deal from each one. We wanted to highlight one particular box we made a couple of months ago where we experimented with a smaller form and what making it has taught us. 

The design of the box or ‘skull’ (the plywood/acrylic case that contains the tech) as we refer to it is dictated by two things: the form factor of the Raspberry Pi in question and all the features we feel necessary for the product to have.

Early on we were creating boxes with the Pi 2 which required a dongle to connect the box to the internet but several months ago we switched to the Pi 3 which features built-in WiFi saving space within the skull. Raspberry Pi also make the ‘Zero’ which is about half the size of the Pi 3, we liked the idea of a small box which would be more transportable and also not require mains power connection so we designed a smaller square brain inspired by the recorder box we made back in October.

Our prototype recording box which inspired the square brain design

I (Charlie) got to work with the layout of the hardware inside the box trying out a new method of speaker mount while Adrian worked his tech wizardry to figure out what hardware to adapt and then got cutting! The square brain featured several changes from the regular rectangle namely:

  • a power on/off button
  • push button volume control
  • No LED progress bar
  • an internal battery charged via a Pi charger board and micro USB cable
  • A single speaker mounted to one side

We tested the box at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair (we’ll share a post on that soon) where we had it set up alongside the standard rectangular box. Seeing the two side-by-side it was clear the rectangle with its larger surface area provided more of a platform for the children to place multiple objects on top of however the square allowed them to pick the box up and put it to their ear or sit down on the the floor with it.

Getting hands on with the square design at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair

Despite working well and having great mobility the square box also had some obvious limitations:

  • the Pi Zero only allowed us one speaker, so the sound wasn’t as good
  • the clicky volume buttons weren’t as effective or efficient as a dial
  • the lack of our physical progress bar didn’t help people understand they had to wait a bit
  • larger objects might not balance well on the smaller top
The square design with its illuminated power button and push button volume controls

We do love the smaller form factor but when you put the two designs side-by-side the larger rectangular box has a greater presence, not to mention more room for fiddly cables and components. It was a great thing to prototype and has since influenced alterations for our bigger boxes. This won’t be the last you see of square boxes however, I’ve had some fun recently prototyping a bigger ‘Design-for-Disassembly box, but all that is for another day.

C