On a recent trip to Iceland, my husband Chris and I visited several different museums in Reykjavik over the course of three days. While museums constituted only a portion of our overall schedule in Iceland, they gave us the grounding we needed to understand such an incredible culture. I offer this light-hearted review partially written as a personal reflective exercise and partially written as a short summary for other travelers by someone in the museum industry.
We started with Reykjavik 871: The Settlement Exhibition, a new archaeological exhibit located underneath a building. In 2001, the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavik were discovered, including a hall (longhouse) from the 10th century preserved in its original location as the focal point of the exhibition. We learned so much about early life in Viking Age Iceland, a land so ancient it’s hard to fathom. One interesting fact is that Iceland used to be much warmer than it is now, so farming would not have been as bitter and god-awful as one might imagine nowadays. The climate was much more temperate. The exhibit featured incredible digital technology, which helped tell the story and complete the scene set by the ancient stones. The experience at Reykjavik 871 only requires about an hour, so it’s easy to squeeze in any number of travel plans.
We decided to continue our afternoon at the Saga Museum, a place high on my list of priorities because it recreates Viking life. Chris was not too impressed with the experience, but I enjoyed it mostly because I learned a great deal about Icelandic history (and I’m a sucker for history dioramas). The Saga Museum essentially consists of eighteen vignettes of life-like Vikings in different scenarios that tell the stories of the Icelandic sagas. You walk through a path to each vignette and listen to an audio guide that highlights each saga. We got to “meet” the famous heroes and infamous villains in Viking stories that include Leif’s discovery of America, the founding of the world’s oldest parliament, and epic clan feuds. Afterwards, we watched a video on how the museum created the silicone figures, weapons, and clothing. THEN we got to dress up like Vikings! I was totally in my element, and Chris even got a chuckle out of wearing the extremely heavy helmets and holding the huge swords. How could anyone fight wearing all that metal?? This participatory experience at the end cemented our understanding of Viking life and offered some good ole dress-up fun. This museum requires a bit more time to get the full effect, so plan for at least two hours.
The next day we visited the National Museum of Iceland, a jewel of a museum: well-organized, extremely clean and navigable, extensive in its history but manageable to accomplish in an afternoon. The museum preserves the national heritage of Iceland, housing some 300,000 historic and cultural artifacts that date back to the 9th century. The first floor features the museum shop and cafe, a changing photo gallery, and a lecture hall. The second and third floors consist of the permanent exhibition, tracing Iceland’s roots from 800 – present day (the second floor also contains a temporary art exhibit space). Because Iceland’s history is long and complicated, we found this museum extremely helpful in piecing together the larger picture. We developed a greater understanding of the “history periods” of Iceland: dawn of Icelandic society (Viking Age), reign of the Christian Chieftains, Norwegian rule, Danish rule, Absolutism, nation state and development, and “modern world” Iceland. The current building was constructed in 1950 not long after Iceland achieved its independence, but major renovations to the museum and its exhibitions took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the “new” National Museum opening in 2004. The exhibitions blended digital technology with impressive display cases and interesting layouts, resulting in a rich and meaningful museum experience. Plan for a full half day at this museum if you’re one to read exhibit text; if not, a few hours should suffice.
Our third day, we headed to the Einar Jonsson Museum, located conveniently across the street from the apartment where we stayed! We’d seen the building but had not ventured inside yet. As we only had about an hour before the museum closed, we zipped our way through the small museum in a mere 40 minutes. Einar Jonsson was Iceland’s first sculptor and a delightfully peculiar artist. He built the museum himself to house many of his works and then built living quarters for himself and his wife on the top floor. His work is dark and existential. He rejected naturalistic depiction and classical art tradition, instead using mythological and religious motifs believing that artists should forge their own creative paths. His paintings feature bright colors and interesting figures, providing a fabulous contrast to the monochrome of his sculptures. Johnson’s efficient living quarters gave us a unique glimpse into his personality. Chris and I both greatly enjoyed our foray into Icelandic art as well as the opportunity to discuss the artwork after several days of focusing purely on history. Do not let the imposing exterior fool you – it does not give a true sense of the exquisite beauty on the inside!
These four museums encapsulate Iceland and its story, and I highly recommend visiting any of them the next time you want to take a short four hour and 45 minute flight to a unique destination!
Erin is the Director of Education for the Old North Church & Historic Site, serves on the planning committee for the Greater Boston Museum Educators Roundtable, and gives Art + Medicine gallery talks at the MFA with her husband when they can find the time. She is taking her sweet time finishing the museum education certificate program amidst having babies and working. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.