Visiting UVA and the Scholars’ Lab

Beautiful Alderman Library, where Scholars’ Lab is located

I’ve spent the last week on the beautiful grounds of University of Virginia, where I’ve visited Scholars’ Lab and given two talks (one for the brand new Engineering and Society department and one for the Scholars’ Lab). This is all part of what I call my great digital environmental humanities tour, where I plan to visit quite a few digital humanities centers of the next year and a half. The UVA visit is the first one, and in the spring I plan to go to Stanford and UCLA. It’s all generously funded by the internationalization funding that came with my wonderful tenure-track job in Umeå.

The gate to one of the gardens around The Lawn

One of the reasons why I’m enjoying this stay so much is that I have a long-standing connection to UVA. I lived here for a year, in 2005-2006, with my wife, who got her PhD from here. We even got married in one of Thomas Jefferson’s gardens. During this year, I was a visiting researcher in what was then the STS department, working on my dissertation and generally having a great time. I haven’t been back since Dolly defended her PhD in 2008, so a visit was much overdue.

I met with the environmental history grad students in the Sally Brown Reading Room, where we had a very good discussion of the state of Nordic environmental history
The Scholars’ Lab

The Scholars’ Lab is a wonderful place, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to connect with the people here. It is one of the most outspoken proponents of digital research and scholarship in the US, under the leadership of Bethany Nowviskie. The lab faculty and staff has developed software applications like Neatline (which I’ll talk about shortly). The lab provides space for students and faculty to meet and work, with plenty of computer equipment. It also hosts a speaker series (where I gave a talk) and arranges workshops on a number of topics. In other words, the lab’s mission is very similar to HUMlab’s.

My desk was located right next to the Scholars’ Lab’s Makerbot – “The Replicator”

I was also curious to hear more about the Praxis Program, which “realigns graduate methodological training with the demands of the humanities in the digital age.” The library has had a graduate fellowship in the digital humanities for six years, and the Praxis Program is an attempt to take this training even further. The Praxis Program is in many ways a digital apprenticeship, where six graduate students gets to work with the Scholars’ Lab team to design and build a digital research tool. The tool is not the goal, however – instead, the Praxis Program aims to develop transferable skills such as coding, planning, project management, teamwork, and so on, with the goal of creating “scholars comfortable designing effective user experiences, writing and working with open source code, engaging broad audiences, managing teams and budgets, and theorizing their work within the rich tradition of humanities computing.” I believe this is something that we should really try to implement in our own graduate students in Sweden, both on Masters and Doctoral levels.


My main reason to come to the Scholars’ Lab, however, was to do some work on setting up a pilot project website using Neatline, a software application developed by the lab to let scholars “tell stories with maps and timelines.” I have done much thinking about the mediation of places and of ideas of nature (partly through my affiliation with the Media Places project), and I think digital tools like Neatline can be quite helpful in visualizing and analyzing the way narratives and knowledge about both abstract and concrete places and spaces are mediated and distributed in different configurations over time. I only had time to do some initial work on the actual website, but I got the chance to discuss my ideas and the possibilities and limitations in Neatline with the developers.

I have forever joined the group of Scholars’ Lab fellows and friends on the lab’s Wii.

I have three more days in the US, most of which I’ll spend in the Washington, DC area. On Sunday there are museums to visit – the National Museum of American History was closed for renovations last time I was here, in 2008, and it has some quite nice history of technology exhibits from what I hear. The American Art Museum has an exhibit on “The Art of Video Games” that looks absolutely fabulous. The National Book Festival is also on this weekend, so I will certainly take a walk along the Mall to see what’s happening.

On Monday I will go out to George Mason University to visit the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media – I visited there for two weeks in 2008, so they are old friends. On Tuesday, I will visit the Library of Congress, where another friend will show me the ropes. I hope to find some useful material for one or two of my ongoing research projects.

Virginia skies

Sometime during this stay I might stop at the National Geographic Museum to look at George Steinmetz’ desert photos. I am certainly going to Sushi Taro for some of the best sushi in the world, and very possibly to Smoke and Barrel for some fine and rare beers. Plenty to do, in other words.


From the Ratan guest harbor

We try to be good microtourists, exploring the region where we live. Inbetween all the trees there are actually a few interesting things to see. Today we visited Ratan between the rainshowers – a tiny village (about 50 people live there) that used to be the customs harbor for all of Västerbotten starting in 1767. The harbor has lost this importance, but the guest harbor is still used by tourists and visitors. Ratan is also known for being the site of a 1809 battle between Russia and Sweden, which ended when Sweden ceded Finland to Russia.

Of more interest to environmental historians, perhaps, are the mareographs, tide gauges marking the sea levels going back all the way until the 1700s. Having long data series are particularly important in this region – the High Coast – with exceptionally high levels of land uplift.

Discovering space in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture

I’m a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and I have my conference schedule to thank for that. At the 2009 SHOT meeting in Pittsburgh, one of the conference excursions took me to Fallingwater, which was the first FLW building I visited. I had already seen pictures of the building, which is why I signed up for the tour. While it of course does look spectacular from the outside, what you don’t get from the pictures is the feeling of space inside the buildings, of this particular relationship between the body and the room around you. The space simply feels right. This is where Wright truly excelled. Pictures can’t convey this feeling, at least not the ones I’ve taken.

ASEH in Phoenix in 2011 had an excursion to Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home in Arizona, and the 2012 ASEH meeting in Wisconsin gave me the opportunity to both get a special tour of his summer home in Taliesin and to stop in his Oak Park Studio and to see the classic Robie House in Chicago. Here are a few pictures from some of the buildings I’ve visited.

Taliesin West
Taliesin West
Guggenheim Museum
Hillside Studio & Theater
Tree at Taliesin
Robie House
Classic cantilever
Oak Park Studio
Moore-Dugal Residence, FLW’s first independent commission from 1895. Redesigned and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1923.
Stained Glass
Our LEGO Robie House!

ESEH meeting in Szeged, Hungary

I serve on the board of the European Society of Environmental History, and we meet physically about once a year – either at the biannual conference or in the home town of one of the other board members. In 2010 we met in Salzburg in Austria, and in April we met in Szeged, about two hours by train south of Budapest, in the Carpathian Basin. While we also do online meetings to keep travel costs (and emissions) low, meeting physically does have its advantages – this is particularly true in international organizations, where we face significant cultural differences and ensuing organizational challenges. Of course, I also enjoy traveling and seeing new places – I wish I’d had time to visit Budapest as well.

Szeged was quite beautiful, and were able to stay in a very nice hotel at a ridiculously low price (this is certainly an advantage of meeting outside of the big travel hubs). I took the train down from Budapest (well, the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport), in a shabby but comfortable first-class seat (also very cheap). In addition to a day and a half of meetings, I was able to take a day of sightseeing in Szeged.

Hungarian countryside, filled with rabbits and deer.
Some rather funky architecture
Pál Vágo (1854-1928), “Szeged Will Be More Beautiful Than It Used To Be”, a massive painting depicting the great flood of 1879

SHOT and Takei in Boston, MA

The spring Executive Council meeting of the Society for the History of Technology took me to Boston in April, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable stay. This was my first time in Boston, so I got to see the MIT campus (where the SHOT EC met), meet up with old friends from Charlottesville, unexpectedly run into a former colleague at Harvard Square (and then getting a tour of the library stacks and of the Harvard Business School, where he is a postdoc), talk to Matthew Battles at metaLAB, have Hanna Rose Shell give me a guided tour of Boston, see George Takei give a plenary talk at the 2012 Conference of the National Popular Culture & American Culture Association (I paid guest fees just for this!), and have dinner with Lisa Swanstrom just days before she was coming to Umeå for the Science Fiction Across Media workshop I arranged. A packed visit, for sure, but of the best kind.

It will certainly not be my last time in Boston!

The Stata Center, MIT
George Takei!