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.

Designed to Disappear

The 31st July was the 100th anniversary since the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, and in the days leading up to the centenary a sculpture appeared in Trafalgar Square called The Mud Soldier. Created by Damian and Kilian Van Der Velden, the slumped soldier was crafted from sand mixed with mud from the fields of Passchendaele, and designed to slowly deteriorate, washing away in the rain. (It was also rigged with a watering system in case of dry spells, but turned out it was a rainy week!)

Transition from Day 2 to Day 4

 

It was a truly touching memorial and we ran down to Trafalgar Square several times to revisit the sculpture, as did many other Londoners and those who’d travelled from further afield to see it.

Given its temporary nature, we wanted to take the opportunity to make 3D captures of the sculpture in its different states and share those online. We did that on the second and fourth day (which was its last). Here’s the model from the second day…

… and here’s a small print of it we made:

The #MudSoldier was a fitting tribute to remembering the human cost of the First World War. It was lovely to see people who may normally rush across Trafalgar Square stopping in their tracks to observe the sculpture and take a moment to realise its meaning.

We were also thrilled to meet sculptor Damian Van Der Velden and two of the project organisers, Karen Roebuck and Pauline Steverlynck from Visit Flanders, Thank you for letting us loop around the installation snapping away to create the model!

We hope you enjoy 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.

Charlie DoES Liverpool

Last week Charlie hopped on a train up to Liverpool to hang out with our tech lead Adrian, here’s an account of what he got up to:

DoES Liverpool

Having never been to Liverpool before I jumped at the chance to make the two or so hour train ride to visit Adrian who is based at DoES Liverpool, a maker space which he co-founded in 2011.

On arrival I was introduced to all of the friendly faces, claimed a desk and set my intro music to a piece by Frédéric Chopin (the space is rigged to play an audio file when you ‘tap-in’ in the morning). I was also introduced to the talking fridge, the gesture bin and the internet-connected coffee machine. Welcome to the wonderful world of DoES Liverpool!

The space is divided between the co-working space and the workshop which has a wealth of kit including two laser cutters (Gerald & Sophia) and several 3D printers. I arrived with a list of things I wanted to get done and so wasted no time with cracking on.

Cardboard Experiment

One experiment I had a chance to play with and develop was a cardboard Museum in a Box. I’d prepped a flimsy mock-up in London and was pretty chuffed with the outcome so decided to refine a neater version in the workshop at DoES. This was also a useful opportunity to try out a different internal configuration and a new way to access the tech inside the box.

Architecture

Being a bit of an architecture enthusiast, spending time in Liverpool was a dream because the buildings vividly tell the story of a busy port city, its development and importance at the time of its height in the British Empire. I’ve dreamed of an ‘architectural box’ for some time now and a tour around the docks provided the inspiration to start just that. Towns and cities across England are littered with great lessons and examples of great architecture but unless you can decode what you are looking at it’s hard to truly interpret and appreciate it. The author and illustrator Matthew Rice says it nicely:

‘Once you can speak any language, conversations can begin, but without it communications can only be brief and brutish. The same is the case with Architecture: an inability to describe the component parts of a building leaves one tongue-tied and unable to begin to discuss what is or is not exciting, dull or peculiar about it.’

Garstang Museum of Archaeology

Adrian and I managed to squeeze in a trip to the Garstang Museum, a museum named after Professor John Garstang, who founded the ‘Institute of Archaeology’ and associated museum in 1904.

Despite its modest size it’s packed with fascinating objects, most of which were excavated by Garstang in Egypt, the Sudan, and the Near East; the collection also contains almost twenty collections of glass-plate negatives relating to Garstang’s archaeological work in these areas. Several of the images have been enlarged and line the walls of the museum providing a fantastic insight into the world of archaeology in the early 20th century.

Something that struck me was the amazing collection of Shabti that are on display in one of the exhibition spaces. Shabti were funerary figures who accompanied the deceased to the after-life, left alongside them inside their tombs. The poorest people may not have had any but even those tombs of modest size would have contained at least one or two Shabti. Those on display in the museum clearly show the range of Shabti and their corresponding value because of the materials used (wood, stone and faience) and their size (from ~10mm up to ~30cm), it was great to see such a diverse representation of people come together within one display case.

If you’re in Liverpool and have a spare hour I can absolutely recommend heading to the Garstang but be sure to plan carefully as the museum only opens on between 10am-4pm every Wednesday.

Taking five after a long day of making and learning in Liverpool

Back at DoES I was really enjoying being able to work on an idea in one room and nip next door to quickly mock-up a prototype in the workshop so much so that I was still laser-cutting minutes before having to leave to catch a train back to London. I was able to work on and develop some fun ideas including an architecture box which I’ll share some more info on in due course. Thank you Liverpool!

That’s all for now. C

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

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.) 🙂