Matters that Matter: Digitizing Carl Sahlin’s Archive

During the end of April 2016 our research group had its first gathering at the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm. The primary purpose of the meeting was to kick-off our project, and be introduced to the excellent team at the museum. The general idea was to have a first grasp of the collaborative nature of the project, get to know each other and, of course, access the archives.

A cluster of the sources we seek to digitize as part of Digital Models is the personal archive of Carl Sahlin, the eminent business and industry historian. Born in 1861, Sahlin was well educated and widely recognized as a researcher, with a baccalaureate from Lund and a metallurgist degree from the university of Technology. He was in fact awarded an honorary PhD from the University of Stockholm and a Royal Medal Illis Quorum (1933) for his research. His own scholarship covers no less than 382 papers and articles, mainly in Swedish industrial history. His preoccupation with technology and the industry was evident in his relation to cultural heritage. He was the initiator of three museums of technical-historical nature: Bergslagets Museum in Falun, the Laxå Mill museum and the Museum of Technology in Stockholm.

As any intriguing personality, Carl Sahlin was a collector of a vast variety of disparate materials. Reconstructing his archive to get a grasp of his polymorphus life and work, posed several challenges to us. How does one digitize? What to pick first? Lotta Ouidhus, the museum’s archivist helped us navigate through some of the archival capsules. Sahlin’s illustrious personality was most certainly reflected in his collection of materials. Among business letters, contracts, and business and academic paperwork, we found a variety of interesting things and paper artefacts from Sahlin’s special collection. Copies of the magazine Idun, pictures of all sorts, receipts for equipment and land and an impressive collection of hand-crafted and hand-painted maps of terrain-land with lakes, mines, and all sorts of things.


The archive list for the volume archivist showed (F2 : 1- see screenshot from the archives of the list) states that it contains maps from Gamlebo – Höganäs from the years 1600-1805.

Within these files we found these beautiful, hand-crafted maps that Carl Sahlin collected and that the museum archivist encouraged us to digitize. We looked through these maps: we could see designated iron ores, with small fir trees to indicate forest and some of them could perhaps make interesting adventure games, teach users (read museum audiences and researchers) about the history of environmental representation.

Map depicting iron ores (detail: compass circa: 1600)

Map depicting iron ores (detail: compass circa: 1600)



Map depicting iron ores (detail: forest and ore circa: 1600)

One of the challenges that digitization entails is how to depict or denote the actual materiality of artefacts. For example some of the most detailed, exquisite maps were partially burnt. As a group, we spent a few minutes trying to reconstruct the map’s current material state.


Map depicting iron ores (circa: 1600)

After a close examination we saw that the map had cloth embedded in to be more durable, and its very position and structure looked as if this was an ornamental map- intended perhaps to be hanged. However it was partially burned, which made us think that whoever used the map – Carl Sahlin or before him – they did so in circumstances of no electricity, perhaps the burning parts were because someone had examined the map in candlelight. A serious question arose: how does one digitize an archive taking into consideration its materiality? And if so, could there be digital materiality that may enable a deeper examination and more meanings and stories that relate to the physical condition of that map?

As Paul Leonardi (2010) notes: ’most authors who proffer either a direct or an associative definition of materiality link the term to matter — tangible stuff. … If “material” means “matter” and software has no matter, we are best off to dispense with the inaccurate modifier. But if we think there is something important about software or other intangible artifacts that distinguish them in key ways from patterns of interaction, talk, or other social practices, and that the word “material” points to that distinction, a second option would be to consider how the adjective can be used to represent these differences’.

In recent years, Wanda Orlikowski’s (2000) notion of a technology–in–practice has become common. Orlikowski distinguishes a technology–in–practice from a technological artefact. The artefact is ‘the stuff’ that people use. Technology–in–practice refers to the way the technology is used. In the physical realm a map would be a technological artefact whose form does not change depending upon its material components or where it is placed or for how it would be used. But as technology–in–practice, a map as a digital artefact may be used as a game, an environmental investigation, a point of reference for the artefact’s human use and cultural state- in this case, we may assert that digital artefacts are in fact technologies–in–practice. Conceptualizing “material” suggests while artefacts have many features, not all are equally significant to everyone. In that light, we look forward to looking at the archives, and speculating and planning their digitization. As Ségolène Tarte once told me ‘Digitisation is a method that is instrumenting methodology when models, expectations and intentions are specific’. For it is clear that the digital materiality of an artefact enables more meanings for both researchers and the museum’s audience.






Anna Foka, 17 maj 2016

Metamodeling—3D-(re)designing Polhem

Basically, our project set up is part of the trend were heritage institutions are exploring how 3D technologies can broaden access to their collections (see for example, Richard Urban’s article, Collections Cubed: Into the third dimension.) More specifically regarding 3D, we are interested in Christopher Polhem’s so called “mechanical alphabet”. Initially, it consisted of 80 wooden models of basic machine elements like the lever, the wheel and the screw. Since a writer naturally had to know the alphabet in order to create words and sentences, Polhem argued that a contemporary mechanicus had to grasp his mechanical alphabet to be able to construct and understand machines. 3D modelling the mechanical alphabet, however, can be done in various ways. Within our research group, we have for example initiated a co-operation with the animator Rolf Lindberg. He, however, did not 3D scan these mechanical models—he computer-animated them. Hence, from a museological perspective, rather than 3D scanning heritage items, it seems easier, and perhaps also more pedagogical and visually enticing to simulate them—that is, building and constructing a brand new virtual object. The original item collected in the museum then becomes a model (rather than vice versa). One of the objectives of the so called London Charter on computer-based visualisation of heritage promotes “intellectual and technical rigour in digital heritage visualisation”—yet, is a 3D scan (in our case) more rigour than a simulation? Furthermore, in the case of Polhem’s models, the theme of (digital) reconstruction also has a profound historical dimension, since he sincerely believed (as a pre-industrial inventor) that physical models were always superior to drawings and abstract representations. Then again, metamodeling as a scholarly and museological practice might not agree that the same hold true for digital representations—or?

Pelle Snickars, 14 maj 2016

Cronstedt 1729 – skisser av mekaniska modeller

Christophers Polhems elev – den då unge (och blivande arkitekten) Carl Johan Cronstedt – ska under det sena 1720-talet under sin studietid på Stjernsund, gjort en hundratal olika skisser ur det mekaniska alfabet som Polhem tidigare konstruerat. De flesta skisserna har Tekniska museet digitaliserat tidigare – och de utgör en viktig utgångspunkt för projektet ”Digitala modeller”. En PDF med de flesta skisser kan laddas ned här: Cronstedts+skisser+1729. Cronstedt ska enligt uppgift (via Polhem får man förmoda) ha förenade intresset för arkitekturens tekniska och konstnärliga sidor. Han genomförde bland annat ombyggnationen av det kungliga slottet i Stockholm, samt den så kallade Artillerigården på Östermalm (nuvarande Armémuseum). Mest känd är dock Cronstedt som uppfinnare av den svenska kakelugnen: enligt NE fick han 1767 av dåvarande svenska regeringen (rådet) i uppdrag att utveckla ”en förbättrad kakelugnskonstruktion, ett arbete som förde fram den svenska uppvärmningstekniken till en internationell tätplats”. Hans omfattande samling av arkitekturritningar, teckningar och gravyrer finns bevarade på Nationalmuseum.

Pelle Snickars, 6 maj 2016

Polhem på YouTube

På YouTube finns det en rad videos, visualiseringar och animeringar som alla tematiserar Christopher Polhems mekaniska alfabet. De två bästa är gjorda av Rolf Lindberg, och visar upp rörelsemoment i två av Polhems modeller.

I projektet Digitala modeller är vår ambition att framöver försöka åstadkomma något snarlikt, kanske främst genom att 3D-skanna några modeller ur Polhems mekaniska alfabet. Det intressanta i sammanhanget är att Lindberg inte 3D-skannat de mekaniska modellerna – utan data-animerat dem. Det var lättast att arbeta så, har han påtalat i ett samtal med oss i projektgruppen. Snarare än att 3D-skanna kulturarvsobjekt förefaller det med andra ord enklare (åtminstone ibland) att istället simulera det – och bygga upp ett helt nytt objekt virtuellt. Den museala samlingen blir då närmast en förlaga till en kopia – där kopplingen (eller relationen) till det autentiska objektet är skäligen tunn. Från ett digitalt humaniora-forskningsperspektiv är det en synnerligen intressant frågeställning som inbegriper vilken slags grund som ABM-sektorn framgent kommer att vila på – är det original eller digitala kopior?

Pelle Snickars, 19 april 2016

Här hittar du senaste nytt om vad som händer inom forskningsprojektet ”Digitala modeller”, samt tips om annat som är relaterat till projektet.