Now THIS. Is a Game Boy

Today the V&A Museum of Childhood made this tweet to celebrate the opening of Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition at the V&A all about the design and culture of contemporary video games. Here’s the tweet in question:

My immediate response was one of sadness at the pristine Game Boy. Untouched, unused. Complete. Perhaps never fulfilling its role as a handheld console. I remember that outrageous box, the instruction booklet, the ear buds, the little cases the game carts (used to) come in. The opening screen and the noise that went with it.

I’m excited about the new exhibition, the latest in all too rare video game exhibitions. I’ve not seen it yet but for all the exhibitions about video games I’ve seen so far, I’m always left disappointed. By focusing on hardware and software, the key ingredient of what makes gaming a pastime for so many is missing. At Game On in the Science Museum, I think they boasted over one hundred playable titles. Like you’re going to play through Final Fantasy VII standing on gallery (well until you hit the disc change screen). But, for me, and many like me, gaming is also strongly tied up in memory, experience and the relationships with the games themselves and the time you played them can be a deeply personal connection.

Take my Game Boy for example. Here’s a picture.

My Game Boy. Better days have been had. I've still got the headphones (broken), poster that came in the box, original Tetris and instruction booklets.

A life well wasted. My Game Boy. Better days have been had. I’ve still got the headphones (broken), poster that came in the box, original Tetris and instruction booklets.

Now THIS is a Game Boy. My brother, sister and I were given Game Boys (maybe each or maybe two between the three of us) by my Uncle who had been living in Australia for a long time as a present to make up for all the missed birthday and Christmases in between. My Game Boy is a long lost Uncle coming home. It was an amazing gift. My mum labelled each of them and the identical copies of Tetris with Dymo tape.

My family has always been a gaming family. Before the Game Boys our Grandma had a number of Game & Watch err games and watches which I think belonged to my auntie, uncles and mum. Snoopy Tennis, Octopus, Manhole and Donkey Kong Jr. I still have Octopus and Donkey Kong Jr. today and recently downloaded Donkey Kong Jr on my 3DS. With the Game Boys(?) in the family, traditional family dinner at my grandma’s on Sunday became day long Tetris competitions either head to head using a link cable or undertaking B-Type challenges. My mum and auntie were freaks on the challenges, competing for times on 9-5 settings (a feat I still can’t do today). My Game Boy is the dog Rosie, the smell of Yorkshire puddings and gravy and my deceased Grandfather.

Image of the game boxes for Gremlins 2, Asterix and Kirby's Dreamland

Before games journalism, before Metacritic there was just what’s on sale at Argos at the time. I wonder if that amazing Asterix tie-in with Stena Sealink is still valid?

At the time, like today sadly, there weren’t really video game stores. For the longest time Canterbury only had one computer shop at the top end of town, which mostly offered a random assortment of Amiga games. There weren’t gaming websites or shops or really magazines either so what Argos and later Blockbuster had in stock was the major decision making process for the games we bought with Christmas or birthday money. My first game was Asterix, my brother’s a far more respectable Kirby’s Dreamland and my sister’s was either tough as nails Alien Vs. Predator or Gremlins 2. My Game Boy is a bizarre line in licensed games which were impossible to beat.

My best friend who lived down the road from me in my family home also had a Game Boy. He had a rubberised case for it (the coolest thing) and even the ridiculous light extension. The Game Boy didn’t play well in the dark or the car without it. He had The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening which he temporarily swapped for… a really awful game, ah the memories are hazy I can’t remember… and never got it back. I’m still in touch with Fraser. When we (too) rarely meet, we still communicate in the Amiga soundbites of our childhood. In the Summer holidays, we’d set all our Game Boy and handheld games up on the sofa like a mini arcade. My Game Boy is care free summer’s with the kids from the neighbourhood.

After a while with the N64 and PlayStation coming out, the Game Boys still got play on Sundays. By this time, our cousins had grown up and kept up the console abuse. By this time, the case was yellowed with age and countless sweaty hands. We’d lost one of the little plugs which went in the cable slot (they were too loose after taking them in and out). My Game Boy is a connection between generations.

I moved away to University and met Richie. Richie had a Game Boy colour. We bonded over video games, especially Pokemon. One summer I dug out the old Game Boy and Pokemon Yellow to take to University. The screen had come off through all the years of Tetrissing. Richie and I talked for hours about video games and I especially remember him playing Pokémon Trading Card Game on the coach during fieldwork. His Game Boy is me being hungover vomiting into a plastic bag on the back of a coach in the Czech Republic. Richie was the best man at my wedding.

It was during that next Summer that my Game Boy in my bag was landed on by my friend James. My Game Boy is dead. Maybe. I don’t want to put batteries in it to see if it still works today. It’s earned the rest to be honest.

At my wedding I did a solo dance to what still remains, the greatest Tetris remix to date. Dacav 5’s Tetris. My Game Boy is getting married to the woman I love surrounded by friends and family celebrating our lives together.

So THIS. Is a Game Boy. Not the package perfect, unused, unloved, unconnected Game Boy and these are some of the stories I wish museums would tell when it comes to gaming. Not the technological innovation, the empty shells of the hardware, the marketing materials and the catridges and cases in glass coffins. The antithesis of play. It’s the stories and connections I’d rather see. A row of stickered, battered, broken Game Boys, each with it’s owner’s stamps, lifelong friendships, family and memories that make us.

I’ll reserve judgement of Design/Play/Disrupt for when I see it but I’ve yet to see a video game exhibition which really puts players, not just the games at its heart.

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How to digitise natural history specimens

Digitisation in museums remains a hot trend. On paper, all we need to do is digitise specimens, stick ’em online et voila, everyone in the world has access to our beautiful specimens. Of course, it isn’t quite as straight forward as this but I won’t go over the issues with esoteric resource finding, digitisation vs visualisation and access to the Internet here, instead I’m going to focus on the difficulties of visualising natural history specimens. Unlike prints and paintings, most natural history specimens don’t really have an obvious ‘side’ to take an image of. Flat fossils, herbarium sheets and microscope slides are a bit more obvious but then it all falls apart when it comes to disarticulated skeletons, fluid preserved specimens, taxidermy, nests and even eggs.

This blog post is a guide to taking images of one particular kind of specimen relatively common in natural history museums, the shells of the curious ram’s horn squid, Spirula spirula. So-called because their internal shells are shaped like ram’s horns, the shells of this widespread marine species are found washed up on shorelines across the globe. It is the only living species in the order Spirulida. Little is known about the specifics of where these animals live, how they reproduce, feed and migrate but the shells of these specimens are common in museum collections. Here are the 12 contemporary ways you can visualise these characteristic shells. Continue reading

50 Natural History Museum Exhibitions

After us. Life after the Anthropocene.
Altruistic animals. The zoology of selfishness.
Animal Additives. The zoology of household products.
Anthropodenial. Are Animals Human?
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Arses and Elbows. Anatomy for Beginners.
Back from the Dead? The Science Fact and Fiction of De-extinction.
Bats are not Bugs.
Better off Dead? The Ethics of Eradication.
Blue boobs and other unlikely evolutionary tropes in science fiction.
It Came From The Bottom of A Shoe. Invasive species and how we help spread them.
Can’t see the forest or the trees. What happened to England’s nature?
Chimaeras: The Evolutions of Symbiosis
Collecting the Dead. Where did all these specimens come from?
The Conservation Lottery. Which species should we save?
Cute and Fluffy. Subjectivity and study species.
Dinosaurs in the Garden. The confusing language of science.
The Death of Natural History.
Faeces, Droppings & Turds. The biology of shit.
Fakes, Fibs and Forgeries. Damaging Dishonesty in Science.
From Nature to the Plate. Where your food comes from.
GREED! The organisms we’re eating into extinction.
Going, going, gone. 100 species that slipped through our fingers.
How to kill a cow. Where do you think burgers come from?
Killer Cities. Pathologies of modern civilisation.
Lost! Mishaps and accidents in science research.
Microbiota: the other organisms that make up you.
Mincer vs. Machine Gun. The hunting we’re okay with vs the hunting we’re not.
Mind the Gaps. What we don’t know about natural history.
Murmurs, Swarms and Schools. When animals amass!
Needle in a haystack. The organisms only seen once.
No Cure Without Kill. Animals that die for science.
The Paradox of Sustainable Living. Does individual action make a difference?
Pushing up the daisies: the biology of death.
Preggers: The Biology of Birthing.
Race: Construct, Cultures, Genes.
Ravaged, Sick and Toxic. Environmental lessons from the ‘developed world’.
Right vs Correct. Morality in conservation biology.
Saved for exploitation. What makes a species worth saving?
Sick as a parrot? Disease in other animals.
SPERM. The anatomy of fertilisation.
Subhuman, the history of animal rights.
Subspecies, the politics of biological taxonomy.
Trash Planet. The search for untouched nature.
Toxic Wasteland? Our children’s inheritance.
Unloved! The importance of small, unattractive and obscure animals.
What is an animal and why does it matter?
Whoops! The ten biggest cock-ups in biology and their legacy today.
Whose nature is it anyway? The geopolitics of biodiversity.
The World on a Plate, the natural history of your supermarket.

Documenting Cephalopods Part 3 Labels, labels, labels

Still with me? This series is a step by step approach to the process of documenting natural history museum specimens in a cathartic attempt to explain the process to those who may wonder what museum curators do (some of the time) and in answer to the question, why isn’t your collection digitised yet? I’ve chosen Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s cephalopod collection to start with as a small subset of the zoology collections and one of the less well known parts of the collection. Part 1 looked at how we make a start from almost scratch. Part 2 dissected a ‘typical museum’ label and dipped a toe into some of the problems interpreting specimen labels. In this part, I’ve now added all the specimens I could find onto a spreadsheet and will start piecing together some of the overarching information currently entombed in data labels, apocryphal accounts of the collection and written documents.

Natural history specimens can come with a wide range of labels associated with them. Some are obviously recent museum labels that are easy to interpret but over the centuries multiple labels will have been glued, stitched or extremely loosely attached to specimens as they move from collectors to vendors to researchers and to other museums. Some of these labels are the only remnant of information which gives us an insight into a specimen’s history, information which has otherwise been lost. Without this history, important specimens can be overlooked and the use potential of specimens diminished because researchers often refer to collections based on their age and where they were collected.

Now let’s look at the range of labels found with specimens and begin to piece together what they may mean. Continue reading

Elsewhere in the blogosphere update October

Greetings cintanians? Cinctanonians? Tannins? It’s time for the if-I-do-an-update-I-don’t-feel-like-I’ve-been-neglecting-my-own-blog update. It’s been a busy couple of months on all fronts but pretty much all of my writing energy has been sapped by other commitments.

Here’s some of the stuff that I’ve been up to AROUND THE WEB, including some stuff you may have missed here, all handily packed into a blog post, for your viewing pleasure. Continue reading

Documenting Cephalopods Part 2 The Anatomy of A Label

Welcome to part two of the driest museum blog series ever, getting into the nitty gritty of how we ‘document’ natural history specimens from start to finish. Last time around we’d set up our spreadsheet and set off to the stores to start recording information and observations about specimens. Unlike works on paper, machinery or archival documents natural history specimens don’t readily come with information embedded, inscribed or machine stamped into them to aid with identifying the who, how, what, where and when associated with specimens. They’re also incredibly inconvenient in that many don’t even have an easy place to write information on so a lot of specimen information is written on labels, on, attached to or otherwise associated with specimens.

Label information is really key to the information management of natural history specimens and alongside other pieces of documentation, provide sometimes, primary, often times secondary information evidence pertaining to what the thing is, how old it is, when and where it was collected as well as the internal museum information such as publications on the specimen, questions over the identity, anatomical labels, marks, scribbles and scrawls. As a golden rule and one I impress upon visiting researchers using the Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections is never trust a label. As we will see in this instalment they can be outdated, inaccurate or just plain wrong.

Interested in museum documentation? Having trouble sleeping? Then read on. Continue reading

Documenting Cephalopods Part 1 It Started With A Spreadsheet

Well, it started with a list actually, well before that it started with months of familiarisation with the collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I manage the zoological collections (excepting the huge entomology sensu latu collections) and I’ve been in post for nearly two years now. My role at the museum as I see it is to facilitate access and use of the amazing collections at the museum but in order to do this, we need to get a handle on what material is in these collections.

This multi-part series will take you through the process from start to nearly finish, I suspect the pace of these blog posts will outstrip the pace of the work, in documenting the cephalopod collections at the museum. I have taught collections management in the past and (sadly) am very interested in how documentation works but in my work across the sector and wider, when discussing the problems with managing natural history collections, people not familiar with the work will ask “Why don’t you crowd source it” or “Just get volunteers to do it”. I’m afraid in many cases it isn’t that simple so these posts will take us through the whole process which is frustrating and laborious at times but ultimately satisfying when done right. It’ll be cathartic for me and scratch that teaching itch and who knows, it may be of some interest to others at the very least the nerdy museum documenters out there (shout outs to @RussellShepherd and @RegistrarTrek and the #MuseumDocumentation no offense intended).

Series introduced, let’s get on to documenting cephalopods. Continue reading