Finn Arne Jørgensen (University of Stavanger, Norway)

Making History: Critical Making, 3D Printing, and Digital Cultural Heritage in the History Classroom

In recent years, 3D printers have become commonplace in libraries, in museums, in science centers, and in schools. Such additive manufacturing technologies, though they have a long history, are only now becoming sufficiently affordable and user friendly to put them within reach of mainstream education. In this process, they have also become subject of many visions about the production methods and knowledge systems of the future. Through the democratization of 3D printing, anyone can make more or less anything. 3D printers break down the boundaries between material and virtual, between digital and analogue, in ways that can seem revolutionary and liberating (Jordan 2019). The potential for using these technologies in teaching history in school classrooms is large. But we cannot take such applications for granted.

A basic approach to many 3D printer projects is making – the act of doing as a way of learning (Gauntlett 2013). 3D printers are often placed in so-called makerspaces, workshops that combine technological infrastructure with openness and knowledge transfer between users. The makerspace idea has been primarily oriented towards the STEM tradition, in other words natural sciences and engineering, but we can see how “critical making” has gained traction within the humanities in recent years (Ratto 2011). Many humanities scholars point to material creation processes as a way to think (Ingold 2013; Bogost 2012), and they we are definitely in the domain of the humanities. Makerspaces also have a political subtext, given that it is often framed as taking control over the production mechanisms of the future.

This paper presents results and lessons from a pedagogical development project that explores the use of 3D printers in history education. This project uses a concrete makerspace, the Didactic Digital Workshop (DDV) at University of Stavanger, as its basis. The purpose of DDV is to bring together all the new technologies that the teachers of the future will encounter in their classrooms, so that they can learn to master them. But what does it mean to master such technologies in an educational context? How can we develop the digital competency in our teacher students and enable them to teach this to their own students? How can 3D printers serve as pedagogical tools in history? How can we make use of cultural heritage sources in creating digital tools for education? What kind of infrastructure is necessary to support teaching with 3D printers?

In order to answer these questions, we used the famous Lewis Chessmen (see figure 1) as an entry point into the world of digital cultural heritage. Dating from the 12th century, the walrus ivory chess pieces were discovered in the Outer Hebrides in 1831 (Brown 2016). Today, 82 pieces are held by the British Museum and 11 pieces are at the National Museum of Scotland. Current theories hold that the chessmen were most likely made in Trondheim, Norway. The chessmen have achieved an iconic cultural status, appearing in films such as Harry Potter and Brave. In teaching terms, they represent a form of cultural heritage that is easy to represent in visual form. While the originals are only accessible in two European museums, copies are easy to purchase online or in museum stores.

The project involved the students in seminar-based teaching that emphasized their learning through making. In the first part of the seminar, we divided the students into groups who would go from station to station in DDV to explore different ways of exploring and encountering digital cultural heritage. At the stations, students encountered many different versions of the Lewis Chessmen, with different material and digital affordances:

–          as high-quality resin replicas, purchased in a museum store

–          as digitized 3D models available at Sketchfab on a regular monitor
–          as digitized 3D models available at Sketchfab on a large touchscreen for direct manipulation
–          as a VR model of the digitized 3D models available at Sketchfab, using HTC Vive
–          as represented in text through one of the many history books of the Lewis Chessmen
–          as a 3D-printed model, based on the Sketchfab digitization
–          as a 3D-printed model, based on my own photogrammetry digitization
–          as a standard photograph of the original Lewis Chessmen set

Through these different representations of the same “original” cultural heritage object, we discussed themes such as materiality, authenticity, “aura”, and digitization.Following this exploration, the students spent the next two weeks developing their own 3D printing project, in groups. Here, they were to locate a digitized cultural heritage object model and print it, with support from the DDV student assistants. The students developed skills with using 3D printers, learning to find digital models and prepare them for printing. The project enabled students to use the digitized collections of GLAM institutions.


Bogost, Ian (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Brown, Nancy Marie (2016). Ivory Vikings. Griffin.

Gauntlett, David (2013). Making Is Connecting. Polity.

Jordan, John (2019) 3D Printing. MIT Press.

Ratto, M. (2011) “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” In: The Information Society 27(4), 252–260.

Ingold, T. (2013). Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. Routledge.