Arnastofnun Concept Competition

Reykjavík, Iceland

On 21 April 1971, two of Iceland’s most valuable manuscripts returned home, the Codex Regius (commonly known as the ‘Poetic Edda’) and Flateyjarbók which contain the worldview of the Norsemen. Without these manuscripts, and in particular the Poetic Edda (the only copy of which exists in Iceland), we would understand almost nothing of Norse Mythology or how the world was viewed in those times.

Gagarin was invited to create a concept for the Árnastofnun exhibition, where for the first time, the most precious manuscripts of Iceland, previously only available to scholars, would be made available for the public to see.

The influence of Norse Mythology continues to inspire modern culture, from Wagner’s Valkyrie and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Thor, the comic-book god of the Marvel Universe. In designing the Árnastofnun exhibition, we aimed to shine a light on these historic manuscripts and help people understand their tremendous value to the world.

Our concept was radial in nature, with the epicentre of the exhibition being the Poetic Edda and the world of Icelandic manuscripts radiating out from this centre. As visitors approach the centre chamber, they encounter manuscripts and then interactive interpretations and installations reflecting the stories of the manuscripts.

We worked with a conceptual theme of shadows and darkness, hinting at the mystery in which the stories themselves are shrouded, keeping them at a poetic distance that is metaphorical rather than literal. We used the metaphor of ink bleeding on vellum paper to describe the experience of exploring the sagas through unveiling fleeting glimpses of surprising tales and background details from the manuscripts.

This method of revealing stories gives every visitor agency in their experience throughout the space – always having new stories to discover, and avoiding an overload of information. The visitors’ own imaginations create the wider world in which the things they see exist.

Due to the nature of the collection, and as with many of our museum projects, we needed to be mindful of the environmental concerns to protect the manuscripts, and we brought in our partners in lighting and environment design to ensure that the collection was safe. To this end, some of the considerations we suggested included (as a few examples):

  • Eliminating all ultraviolet and infrared radiation
  • Only triggering light coming on through presence sensing, so the light time budget isn’t exceeded.
  • Designing the narrative journey and concept to accommodate the needs of the collection. In this case, we designed the brightness ratio between the rings to be enough for the visitors to perceive the outer ring as ‘bright’, while the contrast with the manuscripts would be low enough to comfortably study them.
  • The light on the manuscripts would be cooler than the environmental light in order to stage them more effectively without adding more lumens.
  • The materials in the space would provide an as-low-as-possible reflection quotient.
We worked with a conceptual theme of shadows and darkness, hinting at the mystery in which the stories themselves are shrouded, keeping them at a poetic distance that is metaphorical rather than literal Gagarin Design Team

It was such an honour to develop a narrative and concept for this important project and to dive into the valuable Icelandic manuscripts of Norse Mythology and beyond. Although we didn’t win this competition, we are proud of our work and believe it shows how we consider not only the stories and materials of a particular customer but also the realistic experience of future visitors and how their narrative journeys might progress. Furthermore, we always work with partners such as scenographers, lighting designers and environmental regulatory experts to ensure the best possible conditions and circumstances for the collection, to create a safe, long-lasting environment which can be enjoyed by thousands of people over many, many years to come.

Gagarín's closest partners in the project were Katla Mariudottir, architect, children's design studio Þykjo, light design studio Hildiberg, and Studio Uwe Bruckner.

Concept Drawings