Case study: collection boxes

Tim Hunkin, Issue 42, p63, Summer 2008
Tim Hunkin's anthropologists' collecting box provides a useful income and a quirky welcome to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford
The collecting box in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 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 1884.

I made it 12 years ago, and though I've made other collecting boxes, it remains my favourite. The friends of the Pitt Rivers got a grant of £3,000 from South East Arts and invited several automata makers to apply. I loved the museum with its densely packed showcases, handwritten (and 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, but inspecting the donation.

The coins fall past an inductive sensor, which senses metal to make the figures move. The disadvantage is that the bowl accumulates a lot of copper coins. In the past I used optical sensors. These detect anything that breaks an infrared beam, so they respond to banknotes as well as coins, but in practice visitors put in scraps of paper.

Some museums have fixed-donation automata collecting boxes, which take more per turn, but get used less. The income is roughly the same but they need less maintenance.

The Pitt Rivers' collecting box had teething problems. The anthropologists' accusing, pointing action, which works whenever anyone approaches, is very effective at getting visitors' attention, but greatly increases the wear on the parts.

Each anthropologist has a fine tensioned wire to pull their arm up, and at first these wires kept breaking. It took several attempts to find a long-term solution. Not all collecting boxes have teething problems, but it is obviously an advantage if the maker lives reasonably nearby.

The anthropologists still need a maintenance visit every couple of years or so. The museum staff are good at telling me when they need attention - many museums aren't, I think because after the novelty has worn off, the staff don't always notice. I still maintain the anthropologists myself, though with most other boxes I've made, museum 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. Now, 12 years on, I regret it because it makes 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. But it still provides a useful income. The box collects £4,000 to £5,000 a year. It is also popular with visitors, and appreciated by the staff as a sort of introduction to the place and the curators that created it.

For more about Tim Hunkin's collecting boxes, see

(Image: Pitt Rivers Museum's collection box, credit Tim Hunkin)