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Pitt Rivers Museum Collecting box, Oxford, 1996



The Pitt Rivers is a wonderful museum of anthropology, and the history of anthropology. It has remained a classic victorian style museum, crammed with objects, divided into sensible straightforward categories like medicines, armaments, firelighting etc, most with hand written labels, often entertainingly idiosyncratic.
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pointing.jpg (25427 bytes) When a visitor approaches the collecting box, the wooden anthropologists inside rise up and point accusingly (their eyes also glow). When a coin is inserted the anthropologists lean over, a gesture originally intended as a bow, but appears more as if they are simply inspecting the donation.
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The wooden anthropologists are all based on real anthropologists who contributed to the museum’s collection – the style inspired by the museum’s collection of African carvings.

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A booklet about the collection box, with details about the figures and their mechanisms, is available from the museum.

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  Cartoon booklet about the collecting box

A case study of the Pitt Rivers Museum Collecting box
(written for the 2008 fund raising edition of Museum Practice magazine)

The Pitt Rivers collection box has eight carved wooden anthropologists, with a copper bowl in front of them. When you approach, the figures point and stare accusingly at you. If you drop a coin into the bowl, the anthropologists bend over to inspect it. The anthropologists are cartoon portraits of the interesting characters who have contributed to the museum since its opening in 1861. 

I made it in 1996, and though Iíve made other collecting boxes, it remains my favourite. The friends of the Pitt Rivers got a grant from South East Arts and invited several automata makers to apply. I was writing a TV proposal at the time and was frustrated at not making anything in my workshop, so I was particularly keen. I also loved the museum with its densely packed showcases, handwritten (sometimes opinionated) labels, and  straightforward categories. I wanted the box to blend in with the place, so they found me a small old showcase to convert. I had intended my anthropologists to bow as a gesture of thanks when coins were inserted. It was only when I connected the motor that I realised they were not bowing, just looking at the cash. 

The coins fall past an inductive sensor (which senses any metal) to make the figures move. The disadvantage is that the bowl accumulates a lot of copper coins. I used to use optical sensors. These detect anything that breaks an infrared beam, so they respond to notes as well as coins, but in practice visitors put in scraps of paper. Some museums have fixed donation automata collecting boxes. These take more per turn, but get used less frequently. The income is roughly the same but they need less frequent maintenance. 

The anthropologists had teething problems. The accusing, pointing action which works whenever anyone approaches, is very effective at getting visitorsí attention, but greatly increases the wear on the parts. Each anthropologist has a fine tension wire to pull their arm up, and at first all these wires kept breaking. It took several attempts to find a long term solution. Not all collecting boxes have teething problems, but its obviously an advantage if the maker lives reasonably nearby! (I donít, but I often visit London which is only an hour away). 

The anthropologists still need a maintenance visit every couple of years or so. The Pitt Rivers is good at telling me when they need attention Ė many museums arenít, I think because after the novelty has worn off, the staff donít always notice. I still maintain the anthropologists myself, though with most other boxes Iíve made, museums technicians or local electricians have taken over. 

A particular problem with the anthropologists is that the museum and I both decided it should be made out of recycled materials. This was fine for the timber, but I also scavenged all the motors and electronics from a local scrapyard. Twelve years on I regret it because it makes fault finding and maintenance difficult for me, and almost impossible for anyone else. I will have to bring the box back to my workshop and replace all the recycled electrical parts soon.     

I doubt the anthropologists generate more cash than a plain glass box. Many more people put money in, but a lot of it is copper, and no notes. However it still provides a useful income. The box collects £4-5,000 a year, about 3p per visitor. It is also popular with visitors, and appreciated by the museum staff as a sort of introduction to the place and the characters that created it.

The box came back to the workshop in March 2009. I replaced the surplus electronics and after some discussion, added a £1 coin acceptor so it now only takes £1 coins. We decided that in this particular situation, it was worth trying. They have added an ordinary glass collection box by the entrance, but kept mine nestling amongst the exhibits (which everyone, including me, wanted). Unfortunately they now don't separate the income from my box from the main box, but the general impression is that its takings have increased.





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