(Editor's note: As of Jan. 14, 2013, Museum Box is no longer free to use. Whole-school subscriptions now cost approximately $99.)
Beginning in the 1780s, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson traveled some 30,000 miles by horseback, combing Britain’s ports for artifacts of the slave trade. He was looking for objects, from personal trinkets to ivory carvings made by skilled artists before their enslavement, which would provide evidence of the Africans’ humanity. His purpose was to add immediacy to contemporary arguments against the slave trade.
Clarkson’s collections inspired Museum Box, a free Web-based service created in England for use in the history classroom. Museum Box provides tools for collecting and presenting digital versions of primary sources. Students can use Museum Box to collect sources about historical eras, events, biographies, inventions, regions, fashions—in short about anything that can be digitally documented. You can see Museum Box at work in this simulation of Clarkson’s collection of slave-trade documents.
Use of Museum Box requires that you first register your school. Start at the homepage, click Teachers, and click Register Your School. Once you hear by email that you have been admitted (the process seems routine), you can create accounts for individual students so they can create boxes. Students do not need to have an email address, and their personal information will not be displayed on their work without your permission. A benefit of Museum Box is security: student boxes must be approved by a teacher before they become part of the public gallery.
To begin working with Museum Box, start at its homepage. From there, click Start to bring up the Editor, or work area. Museum Box is simple in principle, but it does take time to get used to the elements (layers and cubes) and their properties. Start by determining the number of layers (up to three) in your project and the number of cubes per layer (up to eight). You can always modify the number and appearance of layers and cubes later.
The basic unit is the cube. Museum Box provides tools for uploading just about any type of digital content, including images, videos, sounds, presentations, word processor documents, and Web links. Audio and plain-text content can also be created directly in Museum Box, allowing students to annotate and narrate their content. Narrations can be created by simply speaking into a computer microphone and saving the sound clip within Museum Box.
Students build a cube one side at a time and have the option of writing a caption for each side. An entire side can be devoted to a student’s written summary, description, or analysis. Once completed, the cube itself can be given a title. When you click a side’s thumbnail (on the left side of the screen), the cube appears to spin (on the right side). After students save their work, they can click Submit in the work area to have a teacher review it. Teachers can make edits themselves or require students to make them. This is the point at which the requirements of a rubric can be enforced.
Museum Box can be compared to online poster creator Glogster as a tool for organizing different types of digital media around a theme. For students who need help with organizing their ideas, Museum Box imposes more structure than Glogster does. With only six sides to work with on each cube, students must consider which documents belong together and why.
Grouping cubes into layers requires planning, too. In a Civil War project, for example, I had students work in pairs to choose images illustrating key aspects of the South, North, and West before the war. We first planned the layers using a graphic organizer to identify regional characteristics. On another layer, students created a set of cubes devoted to individual battles, again starting with a graphic organizer. Students were told that each “battle cube” should show a mix of original photos and illustrations of the battle, audio files of contemporary army songs, and a written or spoken description of the battle’s significance in the war.
Students could, of course, create real boxes through a traditional hands-on activity—drawing pictures, cutting them out, and pasting them onto a shoebox, for example, with an “artifact” placed inside the box. Such an activity would be memorable, kinesthetic, and require motor planning. For students with weak fine-motor skills (and for curriculum-driven teachers without time to spare), working with Museum Box has advantages. Once taught the basics, students can work with increasing independence and gain facility as they polish their organizational, search, design, and presentation skills. A single student could create a box not as a special project but as part of everyday school work. Boxes could then be accessed anywhere for study and review. Unlike traditional projects, Museum Boxes will never go out with the trash. They can become part of a student’s portfolio.
Curating an exhibit, whether a "real" posterboard or a virtual Museum Box, exercises historical thinking skills. What story or argument does a student want the exhibit to tell? What artifacts and documents best tell that story? What order should they be presented in? What descriptive information needs to accompany them?
For a more complex curation tool, try Omeka. Students can also create simple virtual exhibits using the website The Object of History, created in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.