From the Archive: Objektet och Museet; SAMDOK and Saving ‘Today for Tomorrow’

One of the most interesting projects Sweden has undertaken! Originally posted April 2012.


“Mum! Here are some people who want to know what we eat, if we can mend a puncture, how often you hug Dad, and if they can photograph our skiing socks!” So reads the cover of the 1986 publication, “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, in which Elisabet Stavenow-Hidemark laid out a summary of the Swedish SAMDOK project. [1]

Short for Samtidsdokumentation, or “Contemporary Documentation”, this project was founded in 1973 to meet two goals within museum collecting: “preservation of an optimal stock of objects for the future“, and “furnishing objects with the necessary peripheral information.” [2] In other words, documentation and collection of contemporary objects to provide for the future of museums. Systematic models were created to help researchers organize their findings, which emphasized not only accession but the recording of contemporary use and practice around those items.

“The Magnusson Family from Töreboda, Västergötland, in their former kitchen, acquired by Nordiska Museet and exhibited in 1991. Photo: Birgit Bränvall/Nordiska Museet. Published in “Samtiden som Kulturarv”.

In 1973, the organization was made up of five national and regional museums, which would rotate responsibility for collecting each year. Researchers at each institution would choose a family that they felt was representative of the area (i.e. a dockworker and his family in Göteborg) and carefully document their living spaces with photographs, usually focusing on one room. After in situ documentation, the researchers would attempt to acquire as many of the objects from that room as the family was willing to donate. Oral histories were recorded.

The project has been temporarily set aside as the Secretariat went into retirement at the end of 2011. But in the recent decades, both the numbers of participating museums and the scope of the project broadened. The ethnographic nature of this enquiry spawned many critical works examining the role of photographs, objects and oral history in the project respectively, as well as the worth and role of this work in the modern museum system at large. [3] The categories for collecting are more spacious and flexible, such as “Domestic Life and Leisure”, “Management of Natural Resources”, and “Politics and Society”, among others. For example, in 1986, researchers from a museum in Lidköping followed truck driver/delivery man Christer Sandin for “A Day in the Life of a Truck Driver.” Extensive photographs taken throughout the day document not only his work duties, such as loading the truck, driving, and conversations with clients, but also show Christer’s home life, eating habits, and that he spent the whole work day in clogs.

Christer Sandin, Truck Driver, goes through the daily motions while a researcher follows and documents. Note the footwear. Taken in 1986. Published in “Åkarens Vardag”.

Clothing is, of course, a natural part of this collecting. In fact, in “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, Stavenow-Hidemark suggests that, “one might say that clothes were possibly over-represented, which is quite natural when each research project chose to document ‘their’ people. Clothes certainly give an identity, and form a kind of skin. . . . the material collected is too similar. Jeans are quite clearly over-represented, with 12 pairs.” [4]

Written in 1986, the number of objects collected numbered just over 1,100, and they were seeing imbalances. There were few examples of cleaning equipment, gardening tools, or sewing supplies, even though many of the women in the study were actively engaged in embroidery projects. This issue seems to be a function of the collections practice, and I wondered: were jeans truly over-represented, or is this indicative of their ubiquity in the 1980s? Did the subjects value their jeans less than other clothing or see them as more easily replaceable, and were more willing to donate them?

This, of course, calls up a common question in work on the future of museums collections, and especially contemporary documentation: who decides? Is the researcher, as a contemporary observer, in a better position to assess how appropriate objects and quantities are to the collection and provide “peripheral information”? Or is it best to wait a few years to gain a little “distance”, and risk losing the opportunity to collect information from those who use(d) these objects? Publications by members of SAMDOK aver that we cannot take that risk.

I think this is an especially pertinent question now that we are all using technology to not only document our thoughts, movements, practices, and relationships with people and things, but also to share it willingly with friends and even strangers. With monumental decisions such as the move by the Library of Congress to save all public Twitter posts, we see that some American institutions are interested in saving the public’s self-documentation. Does this augment observations by researchers and museum staff? Does this glut of information complicate the matter, or enrich it?

The Samdok project is a really interesting attempt to extend the regulations and the organizational structure of museum collections onto how we live today. As someone who has been frustrated by what I considered lax object documentation in museum collections, I also appreciate the intention of assembling the most complete object profile possible. It seems very democratic, at least aesthetically: although curators and collections managers are still deciding which subjects to study, the objects are not chosen because of their perceived beauty or novel contribution to a certain field. Instead, they are chosen precisely for their quotidien natures and everyday use by a member of the general public, who until recently have been largely disenfranchised in museum collecting.

Do sweatsuits have a place in museum collections with designer gowns and ancient embroidery? From Hälsinglands Museum in Hudiksvall, accessioned 1989. Photo: Solveig Englund. Published in “Adressat Okänd”.

Museums taking on a role that reflects the way we are now interacting with objects and use (rapidly, publicly, immediately) secures their continued place in our cultural system as the institutions that create and safeguard meaning. This is partially achieved by asserting the supremacy of the object:

Can people be ‘separated’ from their possessions? Can people be understood other than in their relationships to objects, things they enjoy, play with, embrace or avoid? We articulate feelings as well as opinions and wishes through objects, from baby’s first pacifier and favorite blanket to the utilitarian things, symbolic objects, and all manner of ostentatious and artificial trappings of adult life. We express ourselves through objects, and vice versa: objects express what people like and think.” [5]

What do you think? Is it possible to responsibly and accurately collect contemporary objects (and their use)? Is it irresponsible not to? What does this mean for “objecthood”? What role does a project like this play in the future of museums, both in literal terms (limited space) and philosophical terms (museums as bastions of culture)? What museums put this into practice in your country? Please leave your comments below!


[1] Stavenow-Hidemark, cover of pamphlet.

[2] Rosander, 6

[3] See especially Silvén and Gudmundsson, 190

[4] Stavenow-Hidemark, 55-6

[5] Björklund, 7 [my translation].


Please check out these books for more depth:

Björklund, Anders and Eva Silvén-Garnert, eds. Addressat okänd: framtidens föremål. Stockholm: Carlssons, 1996.

Dahlman, Eva, ed. Verklighets Bilder? Om fotografer och fotografier i museernas samtidsdokumentation. Stockholm: Nordiska museets Förlag, 1999.

Åkarens vardag. Lidköping: Lidköpings Hantverks- och sjöfartsmuseum, 1990.

Rosander, Göran, ed. Today for Tomorrow: Museum documentation of contemporary society in Sweden by acquisition of objects. Stockholm: SAMDOK Council, 1980.

Silvén, Eva and Magnus Gudmundsson, eds. Samtiden som kulturarv: Svenska museers samtidsdokumentation 1975-2000. Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag, 2006.

Stavenow-Hidemark, Elisabet. “Home Thoughts from Abroad: an Evaluation of the Samdok Homes Pool”, in Museums in the Material World, Simon J. Knell, ed. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2007 [also a pamphlet published by Nordiska Museet, 1986].

The English-language version of the SAMDOK website.

Many thanks to Eva Fägerborg for her help with this post, and happy retirement!


*You might have noticed the new heading: “Objektet och Museet”. Meaning, “The Object and The Museum” in Swedish, this reflects my interest and background in Material Culture as well as my new country of residence! Look for this column heading every other Thursday for more explorations of clothing and culture in Swedish society and daily life.

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  • Rachel Harris August 23, 2013 01.25 pm

    This project reminds me of Mass Observation:

    This wasn’t so much a project documenting objects, but documenting the daily, lived experiences of a social cross-section of British people. Some of the writing contains great info about everyday dress!

  • Arianna September 02, 2013 06.39 pm

    Definitely the same idea! I (obviously) think it’s not only fascinating but important…and a huge challenge.

    Thanks for linking to that–I wonder if comparing different everyday-documentation projects around the world would make a good, long dissertation…


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