“Making History: Applications of Digitization and Materialization Projects in Repositories” – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Approaches

In this chapter, I will outline strategies for deploying digitization and materialization projects in a repository. Traditional object analysis is the starting point, but each of three approaches to the digitization process encourages additional interaction with an artifact, its surroundings, and its history. Students adopt new perspectives as a requirement for performing the hands-on work of creating a digital model of an artifact. Each approach works as a stand-alone enhancement to object analysis, but all three may be applied for a more thorough program of inquiry.

In proposing strategies for integrating digitization and materialization into a repository’s educational program, I take inspiration from Thomas Schlereth’s approaches for historic house museums. Like Schlereth, I believe there is value in revisiting the same artifacts and asking different questions of them. I also acknowledge the practical benefit of projects which can be scaled down or implemented in a modular fashion, as a means to accommodate limited resources or logistical challenges. My primary interest is bringing the public into the repository, where they can encounter and interact with artifacts—and technology—in unexpected ways.

Schlereth envisioned a partnership between local teachers and museum staff, with an interdisciplinary learning experience geared for high school or college students. He devised an ongoing program of inquiry in which students complete seven proposed approaches to a house museum and engage in a widely interdisciplinary learning experience. By studying house forms and types, interior space concepts, furnishings and household artifacts, geographic and ecological relationships, literary and symbolic interpretations, architectural features and styles, and museum interpretation analysis, students would be exposed to a variety of disciplines: cultural anthropology and folklife, environmental and social psychology, decorative arts and social history, cultural and historical geography, American studies and literary history, architectural history, and museum studies. Each of these approaches has three components: inquiry focus (details of the approach and the questions it poses), student projects (suggested class exercises and techniques), and bibliographic resources (literature available for use by teachers and curators).1

Like Schlereth, I propose multiple approaches to the same artifact. My artifacts are obviously much more modest in scope than a house museum and all its contents; three approaches seems sufficient. Multiple attempts to digitize and materialize the same object could not only result in fresh insights, but also build familiarity and encourage the sort of playfulness known to enhance learning.2 Each of my approaches to digitization provides a fresh perspective, but may not all be feasible for every artifact. The first requires the artifact; the second requires documentation; the third requires a very permissive curator.

Schlereth’s emphasis on adaptability is particularly appealing for my application. His approaches can be adapted for different educators or audiences. All seven may be undertaken, providing students with a chance to examine the same house from a variety of approaches, with the insights from one discipline influencing later analysis. Alternatively, the strategies may be deployed piecemeal. Each is self-contained and pedagogically valuable.3 I seek to employ the same sort of modularity in proposing methods for digitization and materialization. Several of the educational goals are met when students take a single pass at an artifact: hands-on learning, exposure to material culture methodology, introduction to digital tools, on-site work at the repository. A failed materialization is a valuable exercise, if students understand that analyzing the process and diagnosing problems is an intellectual endeavor rather than a punishment.

There is disciplinary overlap in my approaches. The starting point of the project (regardless of how many approaches are used) is an object analysis. Material culture theory and methodology are applicable to all, as are history and the digital humanities. Facility with photography and fine arts could inform the first approach. Computer assisted design (CAD), and potentially trigonometry or engineering, could assist with the the second approach as well as the third, which could also benefit from a mechanical engineering perspective. Each subsequent approach creeps farther along the STEM continuum. Students who may be intimidated by technical challenges, who “know” that they are not good at or uninterested in STEM subjects, are progressively exposed to those disciplines. The interdisciplinary nature of each approach reflects the public history ethos behind the project.

Approach Components

The starting point of all three approaches is an object analysis. This follows established material culture methodology, primarily drawing upon Prown. Many of the bibliographic resources are required for this portion of the project, and focus upon the historical context (general and particular) of the chosen artifact. Students have an opportunity to further explore the repository’s collection in an effort to contextualize the artifact. They should also investigate accession information and consider what the repository’s documentation says about how the artifact came to be in a particular collection in a particular repository.4 An artifact must be examined thoroughly before it can be digitized and materialized.

The inquiry focus of the three approaches shifts between artifact and object. The first approach allows for an extension of traditional object analysis as the process of digitization and materialization forces students to confront choices in the representation of an artifact. The second approach deepens contemplation of the object’s history and its intersection with the repository as an artifact. This approach calls not only for consideration of the object’s original place, but where echoes of it might linger: repository documentation, period sources, or the collector’s marketplace. The third approach is an examination of the object’s role. It is that utility, and not merely the physical silhouette, which is to be reproduced.

The three approaches branch off in their framing of the meat grinder. The first considers it as a static artifact. The second considers it as an absent object. The third considers it as a machine. These frames offer an opportunity to extend traditional object analysis. The first is an extension of the description phase, the second and third serve to extend deduction and speculation. (At least primarily; as Prown notes, the border between these phases is necessarily—and fortuitously—porous.)5 The three approaches build on another, if all three can be implemented; but they individually build on object analysis.

The basic framing of the artifact will change the nature of the digitization and materialization project. There is, of course, some overlap: the same software and printing options may be deployed. But the method of input may be different. For the first approach, students can stitch together a series of photographs. For the second approach, they may need to create a model from scratch using their software’s drafting capabilities. For the third approach, they can use a combination of data (measurements or photographs) based upon the extant artifact and research into other methods of solving the mechanical problem addressed by a utilitarian object.

The bibliographic resources for the meat grinder’s object analysis and history includes: Germantown’s cataloging worksheets and Fair Market Value Appraisal (accession documentation); Charles F. Montgomery’s “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts” and Jules David Prown’s “Mind in Matter” (material culture); Donna R. Braden’s “’The Family That Plays Together Stays Together’,” Karen Calvert’s “Children in the House, 1890 to 1930,” and Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s “Coal Stoves and Clean Sinks,” (social history); and the Haines Papers (a collection relating to the family that owned the artifact). Additional resources, largely non-academic in nature, can offer practical assistance for the digitization and materialization portions of the project. The list may include publications such as MAKE, but should also embrace informal (and often more timely) sources of information, such as software support forums, blog posts, and personal interactions. The second approach invites a search for outside representations of the meat grinder, essentially creating a second round of research. Various eBay listings provide written descriptions and photographs of equivalent objects. The reverse engineering of the third approach encourages engagement with mechanical questions. Adaptable 3D models may already exist for some components. A search of the Thingiverse Web site reveals a number of different screws, which might be referenced to replicate that part of the meat grinder. Patent applications or contemporary objects can offer insights about the inner workings of mechanical artifacts, thus offering assistance to modeling absent objects or disassembling artifacts in the repository.


Approach 1: The artifact as a static object

This approach treats the meat grinder as a static object. Method strongly informs this conception of the artifact. The digitization will be accomplished by taking photographs of the meat grinder. Its physical presence obviates the need for research into its physical attributes. The object answers questions about its own instantiation, without the mediation of written descriptions, measurements, or extant photographs.

This method encourages the object to be viewed as a static occupant of positive space. The interior is irrelevant at best, an encumbrance at worst. Only what can be seen by the camera can be reproduced. The cost of 3D printed objects is determined by the volume of material used, thus encouraging all models to be hollowed out.

Arranging the artifact for photography raises questions of orientation. If used in a kitchen, a meat grinder has a “correct” orientation. However, screwing it into place on a counter introduces an additional complication for generating (and cleaning up) a 3D model. Placing the object on a quilter’s cutting mat provides a set of useful reference points. If necessary, a full set of photographs can be taken with the object oriented in different ways. Multiple models can then be generated and “stitched” together to provide a complete model of the object.

Orientation is also a consideration for production. Angles of more than 45 degrees could result in an unprintable model.6 The bottom of the model is most easily treated as solid and flat. The printed object is meant to sit on a base, regardless of whether or not the scanned object has a base.

Most significantly, this approach requires that the object be frozen in a single position. A meat grinder is defined by its moving parts, including those which cannot be captured in photographs. A handle cranks internal mechanisms to grind meat. A screw is adjusted to hold the meat grinder in place to accomplish its tasks. By rendering the meat grinder static, it is robbed of its ability to function. A meat grinder printed in this way is no more functional than a photographic representation.

Approach 2: The artifact as an absent object

This approach treats the meat grinder as an absent object to be recreated through research. Let us imagine that Accession Number 1995.15.33(.2) does not physically exist in the Germantown collection. Perhaps, after having the meat grinder appraised with the rest of the collection, Rachel Wilson opted to retain it. Perhaps the meat grinder was mislaid, abandoned and unidentified in the corner of a storage closet, or incorrectly cataloged. Perhaps it was stolen by a connoisseur of twentieth-century kitchen toys, or deaccessioned from the collection. Whatever the circumstances, this meat grinder is gone.

Let us further imagine that we wish to study this piece of no-longer-extant material culture. We are fortunate that the meat grinder is not a singular artistic invention, but rather a mass produced item, with a form which largely follows function. Research can tell us much about the physical attributes of the meat grinder.

At the time of its accession, the meat grinder was described in some detail: dimensions, materials, mark, functional elements, date, and condition. The meat grinder is described as 3-1/2 in. (8.8 cm) wide and 5 in. (12.7 cm) long, made of cast iron, with a working handle and key-shaped screw, and in good (slightly rusted) condition. The “Made in U.S.A.” inscription is noted, and a sketch of the logo is included.7 One could attempt to create a model of the meat grinder based upon this information.

But this information is also useful for identifying equivalent meat grinders. Straightforward Google searches (“meat grinder toy”) uncover what appears to be the same meat grinder for sale on eBay. If we wanted to replace or recreate a no-longer-extant meat grinder, we could obtain a copy for about $15. Even eBay sellers’ photographs could prove useful, especially in conjunction with the accession information. Photographs of the meat grinder in the collection could also provide a visual reference.8

The meat grinder—or virtually identical meat grinders—are sufficiently well documented that a 3D model could be developed from various sources. The printed object would serve as an imperfect replica, a stand-in for a lost piece of history. In some situations, it would be a useless replica. If the Germantown Historical Society wanted to recreate a child’s play room using period artifacts, a plastic print would obviously be out of place. Scholars of twentieth-century toys or material culture would learn little about the original object.

But that same gap between original and reproduction could usefully underline the process of preserving the past. When confronted with museum artifacts—whether lining shelves or arrayed in a recreated period room—it is easy to focus on what is present and forget about the artifacts which have not been preserved. If we forget what has not been preserved, some stories of the past cannot be told. We fail to imagine the role those missing artifacts played in the lives of people. We also fail to consider the process of preservation: the limited resources available to repositories, the political and economic factors which designate certain artifacts—and the stories they tell, and the people about whom they speak—worthy of preservation. By creating a stand-in for the meat grinder, we do not so much recreate the object as delineate the space it might occupy. A careful replication of the artifact is a matter of working in positive space: the attributes of the printed artifact (no matter how they diverge from the original) are of interest. But an inference-based replication of the object is particularly well-suited to calling attention to negative space: the social and material context in which the object was used. The replica draws attention to the difficulties, and frequent necessities, of doing material culture in the absence of material.

Approach 3: The artifact as a machine

This approach treats the meat grinder as a machine to be replicated. A functional object can be reverse engineered by study and, perhaps, disassembly. In the case of the meat grinder, screws could be unscrewed, and all removable parts individually photographed, modeled, and printed. The printed components could be reassembled into an object that would mimic the functionality of the original: it could be affixed in place with a screw, and the crank handle would turn an internal mechanism. Depending upon the material used, it could successfully grind meat.

This proposal may initially feel radical, even when applied to mass-produced objects like the meat grinder. Repositories are concerned with the preservation of artifacts in their collection, not their disassembly. But this very sensible objection demands engagement with the concept of preservation.

Preservation is contested. As in any other specialized field, best practices and professional standards change over time. Anne Downey, the American Philosophical Society’s Head of Conservation, is a proponent of minimally invasive preservation, in part because earlier standards were much more interventionist. Earlier generations of conservators took actions that, however well-meaning or compliant with best practices of the time, resulted in harm to the artifacts in their care.9 New techniques and technologies will continue to remake the field, and professionals can legitimately disagree on implementation strategies.

Preservation is also a difficult challenge. In an ideal world, artifacts are stored in environmental conditions most conducive to their long-term survival. In reality, roofs leak, resources are limited, and artifacts often enter repositories having suffered some degree of damage. The meat grinder, for instance, had rusted before it entered the Germantown collection.10 The pristinely preserved artifact is a rare beast—thus the $1,800 price tag for certain Boba Fett action figures.11

The pristinely preserved artifact is also somewhat lacking in historical interest. Context matters. Germantown’s toy meat grinder does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of the collection because it was part of a large donation of dolls and toys. It is part of the Germantown story because of its provenance, not because of any particular physical attribute. Its rust is Germantown rust—or Mount Airy rust, and the question of whether or not that is a meaningful distinction is also part of the Germantown story.

An artifact’s life within the collection can and should also be of interest. The conservator-scarred artifacts in the APS’s collection tell a story about changing professional practices. Notations in ink in the Lewis & Clark journals speak to a late nineteenth century focus upon the textual content, rather than the artifacts themselves. Archives students of more recent vintage may also note the failure to rely exclusively on pencils, and feel that the removal of metal bindings was perhaps taking the “no metal fasteners” dictum to extremes.

In that context, disassembling an artifact does not seem so radical. In the best case scenario, it might encourage preservation measures more in line with keeping the artifact functional. It could result in a different relationship with the artifact: not merely a thing to be gazed upon on a shelf, the meat grinder would become an object that could fulfill its original purpose. The fact that it could be more easily photographed, modeled, and printed would merely be a bonus. And in the worst case, if the artifact sustained damage then that damage would stand as evidence of the types of inquiry and experimentation practiced in the repository.


By applying any or all of the approaches outlined above, it is possible to extend and enhance traditional object analysis methods. The modularity allows flexibility in developing a project, so that it may be tailored to the educational needs of the audience and the resources of the repository. In subsequent chapters I will turn my full attention to the Germantown meat grinder, performing object analysis and also implementing the digitization and materialization approaches outlined here.


  1. Thomas J. Schlereth, “Historic House Museums: Seven Teaching Strategies,” in Artifacts and the American Past (Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1980), especially 91-92. 
  2. William J. Turkel and Devon Elliott, “Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic,” in Kevin Kee, ed., forthcoming volume (10 March 2011 draft, supplied by the co-author 7 December 2012), 15. 
  3. Schlereth, “Historic House Museums,” 91. 
  4. Paraphrasing Heather MacNeil, “Trusting Description: Authenticity, Accountability, and Archival Description Standards,” Journal of Archival Organization 7, No. 3 (2009), 99, DOI: 10.1080/15332740903117693 (accessed 19 November 2011), quoting Laura Millar, “The Death of the Fonds and the Resurrection of Provenance: Archival Context in Space and Time,” Archivaria 53 (Spring 2002), 12-13. 
  5. Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1982), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1180761 (accessed 23 August 2012), 9. 
  6. Bill Bumgarner, “Getting Started with a 3D Printer,” MAKE: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing (Make, 2012), 13. 
  7. B. R. Roberts, Cataloging Worksheet, Accession Number 1995.15.33(.2), August 21, 1995, Germantown Historical Society Accession 1995.15. 
  8. See Photograph 1. [Correction: Photograph 2, appearing in Chapter 4.] 
  9. Anne Downey, personal conversations. 
  10. Roberts, Cataloging Worksheet. 
  11. plsvab, “A Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures,” eBay Buying Guide, http://www.ebay.com/gds/a-guide-to-vintage-star-wars-action-figures/10000000001068796/g.html (accessed 27 April 2013).