Let us introduce you to the simple, yet ingenious, concept of Museum in a Box.
By Adam Holmes, assistant director, W. E. B. Du Bois Center
Each Museum in a Box is exactly what it sounds like: a set of (replica) objects from a museum presented alongside a small box. The Box looks a little like a transistor radio, with speakers and a volume knob. When an object is placed on it, a short audio recording describes the object. This is done through the magic of a near-field communication (NFC) tag embedded into the object with the audio recording.
It began in 2015 as the brainchild of London-based designers whose intention was to create a new way for people to access museum collections.
Sarah Hutton, former head of student success and engagement and current interim dean of libraries, and I set out to create a W. E. B. Du Bois Museum in a Box last year. With help from archivist Blake Spitz, we selected materials from the Du Bois Papers, including historic photographs, posters, original manuscripts, and other treasures. We also pulled together artifacts found by UMass archaeologists at the Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I wrote captions for each object, and we recorded Whitney Battle-Baptiste, director of the Du Bois Center, reading each object’s description.
Students now use Museum in a Box to explore the life and legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. One Box is located in the Learning Commons in the Du Bois Library, and another is in the Du Bois Center on floor 22. Each features facsimiles of objects from the archives and 3D-printed replicas of the artifacts from the homesite. A third Box will be available to travel off campus for school visits and temporary exhibits. We also hope to raise funds to donate additional Boxes to local schools and provide supporting materials for educators.
The Du Bois Museum in a Box is tactile, inclusive, informative, accessible, and most of all, fun. The objects feel real and tell an important story. Despite the Box’s novelty, the story of Du Bois is not sugar-coated, and objects are presented in a context that is faithful to historical truth. These objects tell stories of pain, prejudice, and injustice, while also celebrating the many achievements of Du Bois and his significance as a historical figure. Museum in a Box provides a way to understand and digest an enormous legacy—and its accompanying archives—that is appropriate for all ages and audiences, highlighting the incredible resource that is the Du Bois Papers.