Gagarin at work at Norway House

Plans for a new genealogy and immigration exhibit underway

GAGARIN

Photo: Magnús Elvar Jónsson / Gagarin
The Icelandic firm Gagarin is known for its innovation in digital exhibits. “The Story of Skyr” exhibit in Selfoss, Iceland, creates a uniquely entertaining and educational experience for its visitors.

LORI ANN REINHALL
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

These days, things are happening at Norway House very quickly, as construction of their new facilities on “Norway Block” in Minneapolis is well underway. One of the projects in the plan is new exhibition space in the Haugo Archive and Bibliotek in the basement of the new building. While the exhibit will not be ready for a grand opening planned for mid-October, there will be plenty to talk about, with plans well in place.

Norway House is on a mission to help its visitors explore the Norwegian-American experience in a meaningful way that connects to their lives today. They see this history as being integrally linked to telling the story of contemporary Norway, in other words, how did such a modern, progressive country get to where it is today? How is this story important to us living here on the other side of the world?

The project also pays tribute to the Norwegian-American diaspora in the Midwest and United States, as it strives to get people interested in their own family history research and how it relates to the great Norwegian-American story. What did our forebears go through, what made them what they were? How did their experience shape our experience, as we carry on their legacy?

Max Stevenson, director of exhibits at Norway House, was quick to add, however, that this exhibit will not only be for Norwegian Americans but is also meant to address the entire immigrant experience.

“Norway House is located here on ‘Norway Block’ together with Mindekirken [The Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church] —a landmark of the Norwegian-American community. Our neighborhood has always been a home for new immigrants—once Norwegian now East African and others. This presents opportunities for all to engage with and learn from each other,” said Stevenson.

There is also a need for successful immigrant groups to develop empathy for things that new immigrants face. Above all, one of the goals of the new exhibit is to get younger people interested and engaged in the project, as they learn about their family history and the Norwegian-American immigrant saga.

Norway House’s vision statement clearly underlines their goals: “To be a destination where state-of-the-art interactive experiences and resources illustrate stories of Norway and Norwegian America, create personal connections to the past and present, inspire curiosity about family history for visitors of all backgrounds, and facilitate new and continuing journeys into family history.”

Photo: Ethan Bjelland
Max Stevenson (center), director of exhibits at Norway House, spent a day of intense discussion and planning with Hringur Hafsteinsson (left) and Lemke Meijer (right) of the Reykjavík design firm Gagarin.

Envisioning a new space

To make all this happen requires both a strong dose of creativity and expertise. There was a search for a consulting firm that could offer the right combination of skills and experience. Of course, other cultural centers around the country provided inspiration, and it seemed natural to also look to Norway, a country with a very strong exhibit culture, often on the leading edge. One need only think of the new National Museum, the Munch Museum, and the Deichman Bjørvika Library in Oslo, to name only a few of the largest projects.

But the answer for Norway House lies with the firm Gagarin, located in Reykjavík, Iceland. Known for its integration of digital technology in interactive exhibits, as well as a sleek, modern aesthetic, Gagarin seemed like a perfect fit for the Norway House project. The firm also has a very distinguished track record in Norway and throughout Scandinavia. When Norway House visited Norway last May, they were also impressed by the “Wild Reindeer” exhibit at the Hardangervidda National Park Center.

More recently, Gagarin won the contract from the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum to design and develop the conceptual narrative for Heavy Water Cellar project at Vemork, Norway (see the July 8 issue of The Norwegian American), and they were winners of World Heritage exhibition for Vega World Heritage Center, Norwegian Fjord Centre in Geiranger, and the Rock Art of Alta World Heritage Center. With multiple accolades, the firm has earned the reputation as one of the top exhibit design firms in Europe.

Gagarin describes their design strategy as an interaction that “invites exploration and discovery through different sensory channels. We activate curiosity and participation with our content development, our design approach, and our technological implementation.”

In June, Norway House and Gagarin got together in person to take a deep dive into their project to set the wheels in motion. Gagarin Interation and Concept Designer Lemke Meijer and Creative Director and Partner Hringur Hafsteinsson traveled to the Family Search Center in Salt Lake City with Joe Grødahl, director of programs and events at Norway House,  and his colleague Race Fisher, membership and volunteer coordinator,  for a day to gather information on the genealogy resources the research center there will bring to the project as a collaborator. This was followed by another day of planning with the team back at Norway House in Minneapolis.

At Norway House, Meijer and Haf­steinsson sat down with Stevenson, Grødahl, Fisher, Executive Director Christina Carleton, and Director of Communications Ethan Bjelland with John Haugo and Marilyn Sorensen, principal donors for the Haugo Archive and Bibliotek, the facility within which the exhibit will be housed.

While plans are still in early stages, the group was able to get started on the guiding principles for their plan. One important principle is that this new exhibit is by no means being designed to compete with other exhibits in the Norwegian-American community, rather Norway House sees itself as a partner in telling and expanding on the immigrant  story.

The thrust of the project is forward looking, with a sleek, contemporary design to convey just that. With about 1,200 square feet in the basement of the new building to work with, an “open” concept is being developed, with concrete and metal elements to create a simple, clean, modern ambiance. Representative artifacts will be incorporated into the space, including John Haugo’s family trunk from Norway, a combination of old and new. Digital technology will be key in the overall learning experience. Digital exhibits will be rotating to offer new content and will even allow Norway House and other exhibits in Norway to share content.

“I’m excited about creating a sense of connection, not only to people and places of the past but to people and places today on both sides of the ocean,” said Grødahl.

The next step is to finalize the initial  concept document with the Gagarin team and then present it to prospective donors to raise the remaining funds needed to complete the project. With two generous anonymous donors already in place, the exhibit is expected to open sometime in 2023. Stay tuned.

To learn more about Gagarin, visit their website at gagarin.is, and stay up to date with Norway House at norwayhouse.org.

This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

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