Blaafarveværket: the Cobalt Works & Mines
Where the industrial transformation of Norway takes on new life
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
From 1773 to 1893, the Cobalt Works and Mines were the workplace of thousands of people who had just one mission: to supply the world with stunning blue pigment primarily for use in the porcelain industry. Now you can experience the history of the well-preserved Cobalt Mines and many of the associated buildings through guided tours, cultural trails, art exhibitions, exciting shops, and tempting restaurants in green surroundings.
The Royal Cobalt Works of Modum, about 47 miles from Oslo, were established in 1773 for the purpose of mining cobalt from the mines in Modum. In the 1800s, it became the largest company in Norway with more than 2,000 employees at its peak. The cobalt was used in the production of blue pigment for the worldwide porcelain and glass industries. The mines’ first customer was the Royal Porcelain Factory, commonly known as Royal Copenhagen. Founded in 1775, it continues to produce the famous Flora Danica pattern.
Christian Haugen, marketing and information officer at Cobalt Works and Mines, wants us to know, “An interesting thing for the American audience is the fact that in the Cobalt Works’ prime time (1820s-1850s), cobalt was the most valuable mineral in the world, and the Cobalt Works had approximately 80 percent of the world market. The value dropped when scientists managed to produce artificial ultramarine (dark blue pigment made from powdered fired clay, sodium carbonate, sulfur, and resin) that could replace cobalt in many of its uses. Today cobalt is more relevant than ever since it’s used in the batteries of electric cars.”
Visitors today see the working components of this early industrial center. These are the roots of Norwegian industry and Norwegian working people. The Cobalt Works and Mines is a museum offering a mixture of art, culture, and nature that provides tranquility, recreation, and experiences for every generation, with three rotating art exhibitions each year, six museum shops with specialties, three restaurants, a children’s farm, children’s tours, guided mine tours in the mining complex, walking areas with stunning viewpoints, museums showing the development of mining technology, the Eiker Gårdsysteri cheese store inside the mines, and an annual Christmas market with workshops, special Christmas foods, and shops filled with wonderful possibilities for Christmas presents.
In 2017, the Cobalt Works and Mines received more than 150,000 visitors, making the attraction one of the most-visited tourist venues in Norway. And in 2018 a jury of Norwegian cultural professionals named the attraction “Museum of the Year.” In addition, the European Union awarded the Norwegian Museum Director and Co-Founder Tone Sinding Steinsvik, (who together with her late husband, Kjell Rasmus Steinsvik, saved, restored, and rebuilt the industrial complex) the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage and its Grand Prix. More than 50 years of dedicated and innovative efforts have transformed this formerly neglected area into an extremely versatile museum.
The complex contains 65 buildings, more than 400 acres of land, multiple art galleries, and lots of activities, including excursions into the mineshafts. When Steinsvik took over, the remains of the entire complex were in poor condition with many of the buildings adapted for other uses. Securing the condition of the workers’ houses, manor house, and other facilities was the first step. Then the focus was to make the mine accessible to visitors. Steinsvik insisted on maintaining the authenticity of the site, which meant retaining the buildings in their original locations and using only traditional techniques and materials.
The concept of opening the museum and using art exhibitions to create a much-needed income stream for the extensive restoration has proved successful. And for some visitors, art is perhaps the most important aspect of a visit to the Cobalt Works.
A typical visit might include a guided historical tour at the Cobalt Works, a visit to the art exhibition and art bookshop, lunch at the Barrelmakers Inn, then a visit to Nyfossum, the director’s house dated 1820 with its beautiful flower and herb garden. At the top of the Haugfossen waterfall, there are shops and an old general store selling a range of items, including fine jewelry.
Or, you might be more interested in the cobalt mines. This is where the cobalt ore was discovered in 1772, initiating the grand adventure of Norway’s largest industrial company. A guided tour complete with hard hat in the Clara Drift is an experience for all ages. With the new glass floor and suspension bridge, the tour takes you through the drifts and literally into the middle of the ore as you experience the mine from an unusual viewpoint. You will also see where mine-ripened cheese is stored. And if you ever wondered how that gray rock can be transformed into a beautiful blue color, then join the chemical demonstration to learn how to make a blue pearl.
The mines museum gives an insight into the working methods and tools from the time of operation. And there is also the Kittelsen museum that displays more than 50 of Thomas Kittelsen’s original artworks. The Miner’s Inn offers food, while the Mine Shop, starting point for the guided tours, carries a variety of souvenirs.
All in all, it’s a very exciting venue with lots of possibilities for return visits. The story is as much about change as about beginnings. The season runs from May to September with an annual Christmas market at the end of the year. Also on offer are custom tours. Cheese and wine at Bergknappen in the mines? A mine safari? A trip through the Tunnel of Senses, designed for the partially sighted but an interesting experience for anyone at any age? This is just the tip of the iceberg for a visit to the Cobalt Works, a valuable perspective on the early industrialization of Norway.
For more information, visit www.blaa.no. The website is in Norwegian and English.
See also “Blaafarveværket”, The Norwegian American, Dec. 28, 2018.
Cynthia Elyce Rubin, Ph.D., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.