Museums hold a wealth of information, but they're not always accessible to everyone. Visiting a museum takes time, money, and opportunity. Even if you make it to a museum, most collections are so vast that only a tiny fraction of the collection is available to view. But a new initiative aims to make it easier for museums to reach schools and communities outside the exhibition gallery.

Museum in a Box is essentially a mini interactive exhibit that can be sent out to schools and other organizations that serve kids. Each box comes with a Raspberry Pi computer, a speaker, an amplifier, and a near-field communication (NFC) reader—like the kind that lets you pay with your phone at retail checkouts. Museums and cultural institutions can then add their own objects for kids to learn about using that technology, whether it's 3D-printed versions of statues from the museum's collections, postcards, puzzles, or anything else curators think kids might want to see. Students can place these objects on top of the box, triggering the NFC reader to start playing a recording related to the object.

How it works from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

Much of the content museums might want to include in a box might already be digitized on the institution's website or in its collections, but the box provides a tangible, curated way to present it. For a prototype designed for the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, the Museum in a Box team created Frogs in a Box, combining photographs of North American frogs from the Smithsonian collection with a narrated collection of frog-sound field recordings produced by Smithsonian Folkways in 1958. When you tap a postcard featuring a species of frog on the top of the box, it plays audio from Sounds of North American Frogs, including the commentary from a herpetologist and recordings of frog calls.

Though much of the work is still in the prototype phase, the Museum in a Box team has been commissioned to create boxes for institutions like the Barnsley Museums in the UK, the University of Melbourne, and the Swedish National Heritage Board.

A Museum in a Box designed for the Jewish Museum LondonMuseum in a Box

The technology isn't necessarily limited to museum collections, though. Another prototype Museum in a Box, this one aimed at language learners, allows users to place flash cards featuring different words on top of the box to trigger recordings of native speakers pronouncing those words. The team is also developing a pilot for a DIY box that would let kids come up with their own themes and content for a box. You can currently support that project on Crowdfunder.