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!

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.

Talking to Teachers

IMG_4540Putting boxes in front of people in the big wide world is very important because it allows us to find out exactly what does and doesn’t work. We make regular efforts to reach out to both teachers and pupils to figure out how best we can evolve and design the product to fit the needs of the classroom.

Back in November I (Charlie) joined a group of teachers, part of the East Sussex History Network at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, to introduce them to Museum in a Box, learn about their own teaching methods and hear how they envisage the product benefiting their classroom activities. I had visited the school previously to demo a box during a history class which resulted in a lot of excited year seven pupils so it was an intriguing prospect to see whether the teachers would respond with equal enthusiasm!

In short I was overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the box and it was great to see the teachers coming up with imaginative ways they would use a box and its content as part of a wider community of History teachers. Here’s a short list of the takeaways from the meeting:

  • Age range – the teachers strongly believed that a box could easily sit across any year group and would be particularly effective for those doing their GCSEs in Key Stage 4 and even 5. This was particularly in view of the box being used for revision to revisit teaching material without having to search through a text book. One teacher said in response “my sixth formers would love this”.
  • Path to purchase – how the schools would get hold of a box and content came up several times particularly considering different budgeting options available to them to acquire teaching materials. The teachers who were from different schools suggested the idea of sharing ‘boopable’ content amongst themselves given they already have a channel of communication established between the network and commonality of teaching topics.
  • Home-made material – responses to where they currently source their physical teaching material and prompts included: museum shops, car boot sales and ebay with ‘a desperate need for [supplementary resources] for GCSE’. This was furthered by a discussion about teachers using a customisable box to record their own descriptions to objects and maybe even add tags to objects they have collected themselves. 
  • Record-ability – is a primary interest for teachers to design classroom activities with a box on every table.
  • Class activities – How boxes could be positioned around the classroom was raised several times providing a means for pupils to explore the content for themselves, moving around the tables to hear a different topic or account of an event of period in history.
  • Sourcing objects – There are currently only a limited number of services to acquire physical objects for the classroom, however the ability to loan sets of objects for a whole term from some provides greater flexibility to when topics can be taught.
  • Basic lessons plans – as a starting point it would be useful to have simple lesson plans, teachers would adapt to their classrooms as and when they see fit.
  • Different levels of access – “Having mutli-versions of the same materials at different levels of depth would be very helpful, so there is the same material pitched easily… but they use language and an insight that’s more sophisticated or broad or much more simplified and basic.”

It was a great session and I’m great to all the teachers of the East Sussex History Network. That’s all for now!

C.