The Boxed Museum Project Part 1: The Concept

The What Museum?

Boxes fascinate me. When I googled ‘fascination with empty boxes’, the search result gave me a plethora of pages about cats.

Unlike cats (and my toddler daughter, whose favourite place to sit is inside a clean mop bucket), I don’t climb into them. It is also not the anticipation of opening mystery boxes that interests me, a phenomenon that has been profoundly utilised by marketers to increase sales of otherwise useless items. I can’t think of anything worse than watching unboxing videos on YouTube, of which there are an astounding number. Neither am I fascinated with all boxes – empty beer cartons are good for recycling or turning into a space helmet, but they are not special in and of themselves.

Cats, my toddler daughter and I - all fascinated by empty boxes
Cats, my toddler daughter and I – all fascinated by empty boxes

And yet, I find boxes fascinating, to the point that my partner just rolls his eyes when I come home from markets muttering the words “I bought a box, but I have a plan for this one.”

So, why the fascination?

I’m fascinated by how unusual boxes are filled and used. By ‘unusual’, I mean wooden chests or tin trunks, or any box that is either designed or adapted to keep items of personal or sentimental value safe; boxes that have been picked out and chosen for one specific purpose unique to that one specific box. What sort of items could be kept in there and why would their owner value them enough to do so? Blank notebooks hold a similar allure for me – what could someone chose to write in there, that is important enough for a special book?

Neither the box nor the items within need to have any particular monetary value. The boxes that I enjoy exploring the most came from my grandparents’ house and still hold the items that they themselves kept in there. There was no deliberate thought put into ‘what will I keep in this box’; they just happen to be items that were kept together, safe and sound, in a box that was available at the time. Anyone else looking through the boxes might wonder why such mismatched ‘junk’ would be thrown together in the same container.

The one from my grandfather, Allen Norris, is an otherwise non-descript large metal tin and the items that he kept in there include:

  • Two sets of draughts pieces
  • A letter dated December 1990 from a former neighbour who, even years after she had moved away and had not seen him since, wrote to him to thank him for the help he had been giving to her elderly mother. The letter itself is still in its envelope and held in a plastic resealable coin bag to protect it
  • A ‘T’ Puzzle and sliding letter puzzle, themselves contained in a Nestle Winning Post Chocolates box, circa 1950-1970
  • A 3D wooden puzzle, which, once pulled apart, is neigh-on impossible to put back together
  • Plastic keyrings labelled ‘Copeton’, ‘Education Pavilion’, ‘Tamworth Soccer Fe(…)”and his home address, all of which have significant meaning in our family history
  • A little plastic box neatly labelled ‘3 lead sharpeners’, even though you can easily see through to what it contains and now only holds 2 (someone’s borrowed one and forgotten to bring it back)
  • A large U-shaped magnet
  • A ruler, compass, lead pencils, pencil leads, a wooden pen stand, a pair of scissors and a staple remover
  • A crossword card game
  • A magnifying glass
  • An empty tobacco tin, an empty ‘Advance Bank’ promotional box of matches and an empty lighter, despite the fact he never smoked but for which he would have seen potential uses.
My grandfather’s odds and ends tin

All of those things have no intrinsic value but, kept together in one tin, they speak volumes to me about my grandfather. Because I knew him, I can see why all of those items were in some way special to him.

It is that interest that gave me the idea for a future art project – boxes in which the more you open and explore, the more you find and the more they tell you. Portable museum displays within boxes. I don’t want the boxes to hold a haphazard pile of items that need to be unpacked. I want them to unfold and expand into something that feels like it could be a miniature museum display.


Boxed Museums

I’m not the first person to come up with this idea. A few of these museum boxes are those of:

Marcel Duchamp

Renowned Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise would be the most famous museum in a box. From 1935 until shortly after the artist’s death in 1968, boxes containing miniature replicas of Duchamp’s paintings were constructed under his guidance, with sections that were designed to be opened, unfolded, slid out or lifted out.

It was a new form of expression for me. Instead of painting something the idea was to reproduce the paintings that I loved so much in miniature. I didn’t know how to do it. I thought of a book, but I didn’t like that idea. Then I thought of the idea of the box in which all my works would be mounted like a small museum, a portable museum, so to speak, and here it is in this valise.

Duchamp, 1955 (quoted by the National Gallery of Australia)

Ron Pippin

Ron Pippin’s Museum Boxes are a take on the cabinets of curiosity, showcasing the macabre and the unusual including animal taxidermy, skeletons tools and peculiar bottles. The boxes bring together collections of objects that together tell a story but apart would lose their mystery. The works, while called ‘museums’ by the artist, tell fictional stories rather than present factual history.

Wired has previously featured the artist’s work in this article.


Susan Collard

Book artist Susan Collard has taken the idea a step further, using artist bookbinding techniques to create her small museums, including the Small Museum of Nature and Industry and the New Museum of Nature and Industry. When closed, her works are self-contained boxes that can sit on the shelf, but when opened the box ‘pages’ unfold into museum-like galleries and spaces.

The Museum in a Box

Museum in a Box is an educational outreach program that uses Raspberry Pi computers with speakers and microchipped, 3D printed objects to create a portable, interactive learning experience – simply place the object or postcard on the box to hear all about it. It encourages people to touch and play while learning about history and culture. Check out their website.

So many more…

In fact, I have a whole Pinterest Board dedicated to inspiration for museum boxes, including those of different artists:

What am I planning to make?

Something similar but different to all of the above. I would like my Boxed Museum (or maybe in future, Boxed Museums) to be intriguing and fun to pull out and explore, but at the same time informative so that people who play with them can take something away in the form of knowledge (rather than taking away the pieces, I’d like those to all go back in again afterwards!)

I already have a box in mind for my first Boxed Museum, but now comes the tricky part of planning it all out.

Subscribe or stay tuned to this blog for future posts and watch the Boxed Museum take shape!

Did you enjoy this post? Here are some more you might be interested in:

Quirky Mysteries of the Northern Rivers

Explore the Northern Rivers and you will find so much on offer – delicious food, unique shops, natural wonders, and a rich history.  As you sample the region’s best, perhaps you could pull out your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and try to solve some of the past’s quirky mysteries!

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