Launched in May 2014, the Eldheimar Volcano Museum is dedicated to one of Iceland’s biggest natural disasters: the Heimaey eruption in 1973. In the middle of the night on January 23, a volcanic fissure opened up on the outskirts of the town and continuously ejected lava and ash for five months. The island’s inhabitants were immediately evacuated to the mainland and many never saw their homes or belongings again. The event shocked the nation and for those involved, the emotions are still as intense and raw as ever.
The Eldheimar Volcano Museum is located in a new building on the very slopes of the Eldfell volcano where the fissure originally appeared. The museum takes you on a journey back to a time before the eruption until the end of the volcanic activities. Visitors can learn the remarkable story of how the inhabitants fled to the mainland of Iceland in the night, how some stayed to fight the lava flow to protect their livelihoods, and finally, about those inhabitants who returned to Heimaey to reconstruct their homes.
Gagarin joined the project relatively late in the design stage. The museum building was already being constructed and the exhibition designer, Axel Hallkell Jóhannesson, had already planned the exhibition.
There was a concerted effort by the exhibition designer to use as little text as possible. There are no panels with swathes of explanatory text that require visitors to read. Rather, visitors walk through the exhibition and learn about how the events unfolded by listening to an audio-guide. The exhibition is partitioned into zones and the audio system senses the location of the visitor and automatically reads out the relevant descriptions.
The exhibition follows a linear narrative. The spatial structure is composed of images, videos, audio pieces, and interactive exhibits that guide the visitor in a one-way flow from the beginning of the eruption until it finally dies down. The main learning objectives are reached via this narrative.
Gagarin had complete creative freedom to design and produce four interactive exhibits that help tell the story of the historic eruption. The team had to ensure that the interactive exhibits complemented and enhanced the existing narrative established by the exhibition designer. Gagarin’s primary objective was to make the event relevant to today’s audience, helping visitors understand the place, time, and people involved.
Gagarin aimed to enhance the learning experience by encouraging visitors to be “protagonist explorers” rather than passive consumers of information. By hunting through debris like archaeologists and discovering “lost” information and old memories, visitors are empowered to discover their own narrative within the museum visit.
Restrictions on text led the team to rely on information graphics and to choose specific interactions to deliver four key messages:
1. What was it like to dig out a home that has been under ash for 40 years?
The Eldheimar exhibition and building itself is centered around a house, Gerdisbraut 10, which was excavated 35 years after the eruption. It is the first exhibit that visitors encounter and they are immediately thrust into the role of an archaeologist. Three stations that resemble video terminals are comprised of a screen and a joystick, which is linked to a remote camera located inside the house. The remains of Gerdisbraut 10 are structurally too unstable to actually allow visitors inside. So by using the stations, visitors are empowered to explore the house by moving and observing what the remote camera sees.
2. How did the island change geographically as a result of the eruption?
The Wheel of Time is a large interactive round table that provides a day-by-day visualisation of the eruption as it unfolds. Visitors can interact with the content by turning the rim of the table, which effectively scrolls time forward or backward. Images and key facts appear to highlight the key events on a particular day.
Multiple visitors can interact and experience the exhibit simultaneously. The tangibility of the wheel transforms the interaction into a performance in space. Every visitor is well aware of who is turning the wheel at a given moment. There are interesting social dynamics to be observed during this tangible interaction. Sometimes a leader emerges from a group spinning the wheel while others are focused on watching the video. Other times, visitors spontaneously decide to collaborate and spin the heavy wheel together. It is an example of how to play with full body interaction, the weight of a tangible artifact, and the shape of a table to create the potential for a shared interactive experience. It is also an example of how the design of a tangible installation can effectively shape our social landscape and the affordance of the exhibition space.
3. The massive clean-up effort
Toward the end of the exhibition, visitors encounter a sandbox that contains small shovels. The property outlines of several houses that were lost under the ash are projected onto the surface of the sand. Visitors are invited to dig into the sand with the shovels. This action alludes to a search for lost memories. As visitors dig deeper, the images become more personal and intimate. An illustration of the house emerges in the sand and if the digging continues, a personal photo from the original home owner finally appears.
The material of choice is a way to talk to the visitor’s imagination and subtly suggest how to operate the installation without having to provide instructions. The sand here represents the massive quantities of ash and debris that covered the whole town after the eruption. Interacting with the installation, namely digging the sand, replicates the historical actions performed by the inhabitants in cleaning up their town and allows visitors to somewhat relate to this experience.
Finally, a puzzle interactive allows visitors to move cubes and play with the concept of before and after. The central theme of the installation is the cleaning and reconstruction after the chaos of the eruption. The puzzle is a metaphor for the mess created by the forces of nature and the human attempt to revert it. Visitors are invited to reconstruct a place by solving a simple puzzle game. When the visitor solves the puzzle, the reconstruction is completed. The puzzle shows a picture of place right after the eruption while on the screen there is a picture of the same place after the human intervention.
After the intensity of the exhibition, this interactive affords visitors a moment of play and lightweight engagement before “flipping the last page” and departing from the story.
The construction of the museum and excavation of some houses were highly controversial for the inhabitants of the island. The fact that the museum has opened marks a significant change in the mindset of the community. It is only now, some 35 years after the traumatic events of the eruption, that people feel prepared to relive and talk about the event. There was no exhibition previously that comprehensively told the story of the eruption and now visitors also have the opportunity to learn about it firsthand.
Hringur Hafsteinsson (creative director); Kristín Eva Ólafsdóttir (art director); Kristín Eva Ólafsdóttir, Michael Tran, Magnús Elvar Jónsson, Jónmundur Gíslason (designers); Magnús Elvar Jónsson, Michael Tran, Jónmundur Gíslason (illustrators); Heimir Hlöðversson (content development); Samúel Jónasson, Pétur Valgarð Guðbergsson, Halldór Axelsson, Jonas Braier (developers); Nils Wiberg (interaction design); Ásta Olga Magnúsdóttir (project manager)
Axel Hallkell Jóhannesson (exhibition design)
Zedrus Ehf (exhibit stands)
“This project practically redefines interactivity, minimizing digital content in favor of shovels in sandboxes, photo cubes, and a lava-covered house. Visitors get the visceral experience of digging out a destroyed home. The relative absence of flashy technology gives this space a wonderful immediacy.”
“A hauntingly beautiful experience that communicates the wrath of Mother Nature through delightfully simple interactions. The dark, ashy environment gives way to playful experiences that erupt with emotion without sacrificing engagement.”
“This project demonstrates a sophisticated overall design language that allows for the traumatic subject matter to speak for itself, at the same time interactive media are used in an playful manner that engages the audience to explore the historic events and to relate to them on a personal level. Excavation is an impressive example for merging digital content with a surprising physical interface.”
“Encourages considered user participation through the use of primitive sensory experiences to remember a powerful community-changing event.”