Reaching for Atlantis
The cultural biographies of objects under the Swedish Empire and beyond
Why “Reaching for Atlantis”?
The project title harks back to Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (1679–1702). As this Swedish polymath argued in the four-volume work, Scandinavia had been the first place settled in Europe after the Biblical deluge; it was home to the first high civilisation which the ancient writings described under names such as Atlantis.
Rudbeck was the protagonist in a massive appropriation of mythology in which Sweden engaged in the decades around 1700. Such efforts gave the Swedish Empire (ca. 1650–1720) the cultural gravitas which the newly emerging superpower around the Baltic Sea was craving. As a result, Scandinavia shone forth as the land promised by the ancients and as the site where classical mythology had originated.
It was a narrative that built on a strong material basis. Rudbeck kept shelves filled with coins, archaeological remains, artifacts from the kingdom’s uncharted north. And at his house in Uppsala, he put physical evidence for his claims at the fingertips of his visitors – they were reaching for Atlantis.
What is reachingforatlantis.de?
Reaching for Atlantis is a virtual museum that introduces the stories behind hundreds of objects from which scholars wrote the early history of Scandinavia.
Historically, only a fraction of them ever co-existed physically in one collection. And those which did all burned one night in May 1702 when the Great Fire swept through Uppsala. What survives of Rudbeck’s efforts though are the four volumes of his Atlantica.In addition to findings he unearthed and kept on his shelves, the work shows retables from local churches, views of archaeological sites, pieces kept in collections far away, fragile plants and living beings, seashores and mountain panoramas.
With the help of hundreds of woodcuts, the Atlantica ventured beyond the physical limitations of a ‘cabinet of rarities’. Resorting to representations, it made the walls of a brick-and-mortar collection translucent to include all sorts of aspects of the tangible world. Highly cross-referential explanations weave them together in a way that they illuminate each other, revealing the deeper meaning they hold as evidence for Rudbeck’s claims.
Reaching for Atlantis departs from the historic representations in the Atlantica as entry points into this web of meaning. Its basic version allows users to explore how antiquarian scholars used these illustrations to shape views on the past and present of their kingdom.
With the help of our webpage, a visitor can draw on each representation to begin exploring the tokens of a utopian worldview – a view that Reaching for Atlantis makes accessible again as a virtual cabinet of curiosities.
Outlook – Visualising object biographies
Things don’t speak for themselves, and the stories we tell with them are defined by numerous factors – collection contexts, national rivalry, career interests, and institutional authority, to name just a few. A ceremonial drum taken from the Sámi people or an Egyptian bronze tablet as depicted in the Atlantica may have many interpretations, and each of them is a snap-shot of the conditions that made the respective meaning.
In a forthcoming stage, Reaching for Atlantis will introduce to these processes by visualing so-called ‘cultural biographies of objects’ selected from the pool above.
These illustrate how human beings shape and reshape the meaning of things – a process that is still going on today.