Overview

Four Northwestern students collaborated over the course of twenty weeks to construct a visitor experience for an exhibit that celebrates the cultural importance of Skallagrim’s anvil stone, an artifact from the Icelandic tale of Egil's Saga.

The students, Denise Heredia, Angela Hosbein, Martin Hewitt, and Jenny Wang, represented both the Manufacturing & Design Engineering (MaDE) program and the Segal Design Certificate program. All of them were enrolled in DSGN 384-1 and DSGN 384-2: Interdisciplinary Design Projects for two quarters together.

The mission of the project was to preserve the history represented by the Viking-age stone artifact located in Borgarnes, Iceland on land belonging to the client, Francois Maria. To achieve the mission, the team designed wayside exhibits, replica equipments and live demonstrations around the topics of Skallagrim and viking iron-making to engage current visitors, share the history in a meaningful way and raise interest in preserving this part of history.

In order to accomplish these goals, the team created an implementation plan for an exhibit that was intended to be created on the client’s land. The plan involves:

● Blacksmith demonstrations using techniques of Settlement Age blacksmiths
● Waysides and wayfinding signs to provide visitors with relevant information
● A reconstruction of the Smithy that Skallagrim would have used
● Inside the smithy, an exhibit with information on the smelting process and the importance of iron in the Settlement Age

A final report with construction plans, infographics, and logistics for each of these components was given to the client. The plan is intended to be completed over the next 3-5 years.

Team member Denise Heredia explained her perspective on the project.

“I saw it as an experience design,” she said. “I love museums so I thought this was a good opportunity to be part of that process and to understand how you can apply human-centered design principles to a more creative project.”

Problem

The artifact is Skallagrim’s anvil stone, a remnant of a 9th-century smithy built by the Viking Skallagrim, who was one of the first settlers of Iceland. His journey to Iceland with his family is described in Egil’s Saga, a literary work important to Icelandic culture and taught in Iceland’s schools.  Today, the stone lies on a hill next to our client’s home. Icelandic high school classes, individual tourists, and saga enthusiast tour groups travel out to the client’s land seeking the stone. The team identified three steps to preserve that story and convey it to visitors.
  • Engage the current visitors to the site
  • Share the history in a meaningful, accessible way
  • Grow a cultural interest in preserving this part of Iceland’s history

How different visitors would interact with exhibit components.

Research

As research for the project, the team members familiarized themselves with the story behind the anvil stone and with the tools used toforge iron in the 10th century by reading historical documents and a translation of Egil's Saga. Team members researched the science of smelting and forging iron, and then communicated these ideas through informational displays and physical replicas.  

“We had to go through the process of learning about tenth-century forging technology,” added her teammate Angela Hosbein. “We explored what modern forging technology looked like by visiting a modern blacksmithing forgery in Chicago. We started off using a small grill setup that we bought and a blow dryer to get the fire up to the proper temperature. Then we hammered on the metal, and then iterated through adding more and more authentic period elements of it. We ended up with just being able to use bellows that we constructed and no nails or modern technology in our design of the demonstration set-up.”

Experience Testing

Building the forging table prototype allowed the team to test the functionality of their demonstration equipment and how engaging a demonstration and exhibit walk through might be for visitors at Skallagrim's Forge. The team ran four test demonstrations to see what first impressions or a tourist group might have.

Team members testing prototypes at Northwestern.

Heredia and her teammate Angela Hosbein received a grant from the Don Norman Design Fund of the Segal Design Institute to visit Iceland and continue their testing in May 2016. The trip provided the pair with an opportunity to learn more about the local geographical and cultural context for the exhibit.

Hosbein explained, “We brought over our bellows and some of our supplies and did a forging demonstration with our client on the land. It was really special for us after doing so much research on this to be able to go there and utilize the technology that we were working so hard on in the actual site.”

Their work in Iceland included: 

  • Surveying their client's land to confirm the exhibit site and get a better sense of size and topography
  • Visiting local museums to see how Saga history and Viking culture is presented
  • Meeting with a local blacksmith skilled in Viking forging demonstrations to coordinate future work at Skallagrim's Forge
  • Speaking with local museum curators and the mayor of Borgarnes, and finding resources to help our client, Francois, start up his exhibition in a permitted and feasible fashion

The team's faculty advisors John Anderson and John Lake praised the team member's successful collaboration and communication, both qualities that are integral to the design innovation process.

“The Iceland trip demonstrated that the team could really collaborate effectively," Anderson said. "Two team members were in Iceland visiting museums, interviewing project stakeholders, and making on-site observations. They were in constant contact with the team members who remained in Evanston, (providing support documentation for real-time changes in design plans,) and the whole team was able to process what they learned from the trip as it was happening.”

Proposed Design

The team proposed an exhibit that enables all visitors to engage more fully with the significance of iron in Viking culture, and to understand the importance of the anvil stone on their client’s land. The proposed visitor experience will consist of four parts:

  • Wayside exhibits offering more information on the stone and smithy
  • Static exhibitions about ironworking
  • Live demonstrations on authentic equipment including a portable forge and bellow
  • A historically accurate smithy

Implementation Plan

In addition to providing build specifications for the exhibit components, the team devised a three phase implementation plan in order to manage our client's limited time, design for flexibility, and prioritize adding value to the current visitor experience.

An overview of the exhibit implementation plan is shown in the table below. The phases are structured to scale the exhibit content and infrastructure as more visitors are attracted to the site. Phase 1 focuses on capitalizing on the existing market of visitors to the stone. It provides visitors more context about the history of the stone as well as connects the stone to the history of ironworking in Iceland, beginning with iron forging. As more visitors are attracted to the exhibit, Phase 2 expands the historical content to include the entire iron-working process, from smelting to end-use tools. Infrastructure of the site, including signage and parking, is also increased to accommodate the growing market. Phase 3 expands programming to cater to people outside the day-trip market, including specialty organizations and bed-and-breakfast guests.

Phases of the Skallagrims Forge implementation plan.

Conclusion

In the DSGN 384-1,2 course sequence, students work in teams on interdisciplinary projects in a learn-by-doing format. Team member Angela Hosbein commented on how special that format was for everyone involved in the Skallagrim's Forge project.

“I had never really done a project that was this interdisciplinary,” she said. “I don’t think there are many other places where you could have done something that was this unique.”