So, you are travelling to Iceland and wondering what to do? Time is limited, you might have found a list of the best things to do in Reykjavík. Is the National Museum of Iceland worth a visit? What is there to see? If you tend to like museums, then the answer should come easily. If you are not sure, feel free to join me on a little exploration.
The Main Exhibition at the National Museum of Iceland is called The Making of a Nation and I’d like to contemplate with you this concept. What makes a nation? How would one go about making a nation?
So, let us take a little sneak peak inside the exhibition. Follow me up the grand stairs from the reception area into the main exhibition. There is an elevator on the left side if you require it.
We start in the past. The time period is 800-1000. It is called the Settlement period because all evidence suggest that a lot of people were coming from abroad in the 9th century and making their home here. This also happens to be the Viking period in Scandinavia. So, Settlers or Vikings? What are your expectations? When I say Vikings, what do you imagine?
Warriors, yes? Brutal Beserks? Raping and pillaging? That’s what I used to think.
But let’s take a little look at the items from this period to try to get a better idea of what sort of people they were.
Imagine you are standing there with me, at the top of the stairs, looking to your left. You see glass cabinets with old items and take a leisurely stroll with me along them.
First we see a chess game. So, these were people who liked to play games.
We will also see necklaces and combs. Suggesting people who like to dress up.
Tools, spades and lamps and keys. So, people who farm and want a secure home.
Tools to work wool and make clothing. People who want to, well, not be naked in the freezing cold.
Brooches, to decorate clothing. Notice the art patterns on the brooches, please. Those might come back to haunt us.
Items for horses and riding, transporting. People who, I dunno, like to travel perhaps? And visit their neighbours? Be social?
Now. What sort of Vikings are these? Knitting Vikings, combing their hair, playing chess? Sorry, that doesn’t sound very brutal. Or, maybe there were more than only the Viking stereotype about. You know. Women, children, the elderly? Snobs and nerds and party animals? Perhaps a few of those people who are always funny and also people who are really quiet?
What if they were more than just Vikings?
What if they were people? I mean, it’s just a thought.
Not that there weren’t some living up to the stereotype. If you would follow me, please, to the right side of the exhibition area for this time period. Remember, it is the 800-1000 time period.
Ah. Now we’ll see weapons and silver. Silver was the money of the time. Used to barter and trade. Measured by the weight, explaining the scales. And you might already know this, as well as other things I mention, but just in case any of you doesn’t, I’ll go ahead and mention it. Even though coins have been found in Iceland, they didn’t make their own coins. There were no Icelandic Viking coins. All the coins on display in those glass cabinets were imported, as well as the silver, it all came from abroad.
As for the swords. It was a different kind of society, so weapons were more commonplace, and perhaps they were only a status symbol and all that, but yes, while looking at these weapons it becomes easier to understand this Viking image.
But why has this idea of the brutish Viking ancestors been so prevalent in Icelandic society? And they didn’t even call themselves Vikings! To Viking was a verb, not a description or title. They would say, hey honey, I’m going Viking, I’ll be back in a year, or two, or maybe never. And then they’d come home from their Viking vacation and sit down and, what, knit some socks? Maybe not :) But. Why did Icelandic society become so obsessed with this image of their strong Viking ancestors? We’ll see.
A few steps further and you will see some human remains. It doesn’t get much more vulnerable than that.
The male grave was found to the North of Iceland, in a soil that was very acidic and thus the bones are in a bad shape, whereas the female grave was in dry soil, it was found in the Reykjanes peninsula.
A good reminder to us that looking at archeological artifacts, we don’t always get the whole picture. A lot of the time it is broken, just like these bones there. And the flesh and blood is missing. Just like the language and the feelings and the customs.
Speaking of customs. New research suggest there was a custom of revisiting graves, not necessarily to loot, but to move things about, leave new objects behind, take some bones. Never bones from the human skeleton, mind you. Apparently, it had a ritualistic aspect. And recent archaeological research of such a place, called Hofstaðir or Temple Place, which is in the next fjord over to where the man there was buried, discovered a church. Right next to the Pagan Temple. And those two buildings were both in use in the beginning of the 11th century.
I highlight this because in the year 1000 it was decided at Parliament that everybody in the country should become Christian. Apparently both Christianity and Paganism was about and that was causing some tension, so, Parliament stepped in to smooth things over. But this church recently excavated is just one example of many of how it takes more than a new law from Parliament to make people change old habits. Especially when it has to do with religion or beliefs. It usually takes a generation or two. And that is what happened with Christianity, for the first decades after 1000, those who wanted to keep their pagan rituals seemed to do so, possibly very openly, after which time it seemed to drift off. And then the church became very powerful very quickly.
So we have conflict between different groups of society but also decisions to unite everybody. And beliefs. And Vikings. Ok. Maybe that is all part of what makes a nation.
Moving further into the exhibition, time passes. In the 13th century, the country accepts a Norwegian king, and becomes a nation without independence. Later, a Danish princess marries into Norway and after her time we have lots of Danish kings. There are many fascinating items to behold in this area of the exhibition. Many beautifully crafted items. And quite a number of practical items. I’ll give you a moment to discover those by yourself.
Now that you have perused at will, we can take a moment to contemplate again the subject of nation making. And again we look at customs and beliefs. In the 16th century, there was a shift from Catholic religion to Lutheranism.
You can see a chasuble belonging to the last Catholic bishop at the museum. He lost his head, it was all very dramatic, along with two of his sons. Yes. Lutheran belief preached more freedom for priests to marry and have children, and yet the last Catholic bishop to oppose this had plenty of children of his own. It might have had a little something to do with power, for in Lutheranism power went from the church to the king.
This shift of beliefs also took time. As an example, they held on to confessions for a bit. These things evolve. Long after becoming Lutheran, people still believed that children would be claimed by the devil if they weren’t baptised right away.
The next centuries are often considered the not so good ones. The climate gets colder, diseases wipe out lots of people and there is a lot of hardship.
Right before you take the stairs up to the next floor of the exhibition, you can glance over to a painting on the wall to the left. It is of the woman on the 5000 króna bill. Money, Bank notes. We have come a long way from weighing silver.
Bank notes started to be commonly used in the 19th century, which, as we’ll see upstairs, is also when national identity became a popular topic. Nations wanted different currencies and wanted to showcase their special, unique culture. The people who designed the Icelandic bank notes currently in use sought inspiration from historical items in the National Museum, and it is possible, albeit slightly difficult perhaps, to go on a little hunt for them around the museum.
Anyway. Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir, Mrs. 5000 kr. She had that painting made after her husband died, he is there, next to Ragnheiður. And on the other side of him are his two previous wives. There is something heartwarming about that, you don’t really see this sort of respect for previous spouses today, not commonly. Come dear, call your ex, let’s have a nice family photo! But perhaps the high death rates influenced this. There existed a perfectly acceptable custom where a child born of a second wife might get the name of the first wife. Out of respect. Individuals may perish, but society, the nation, prevails.
Right. Up the staircase, if you will. There is an elevator to the left of the painting, should you need one.
In the 17th and 18th century (1602-1787) there’s established a monopoly of trade. Danish merchants are the only ones allowed to do trading and commerce in Iceland. In the centuries before that, people had traded with Dutch and English and German fishermen who came here to fish. And many still did so, even after it became illegal, because the monopoly trading was not as good, generally speaking. However, they did so at the risk of social disapproval. The Danes were in charge.
In the beginning of the 19th century, the Romantic era steps forward with emphasis on individualism, freedom and glorification of the past. Individuals who spoke the same language started to identify as belonging to the same nation. Colonies fought for independence from Napoleon, in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). And Greeks wanted independence from the Ottomans in the 1820s and 30s. In the 1860s, Otto Von Bismarck unified the German states. And in 1861, Italy became one state.
In 1848 the first general election was held in France. The Danish king, Frederick VII, signed a constitution that established a Danish parliament, in 1849.
During those Napoleonic Wars, life was tough for Icelanders. Import was at a low. In 1803, around 450 people died of hunger. In 1809, a Danish adventurer, Jörgen Jörgensen, claimed independence for Iceland. He used a blue flag with three white cod fish. That lasted for 9 weeks.
So, finally, nations emerge. Had it then nothing to do with the people, their beliefs and customs? Is nation merely a large group of people with strong bonds of identity, due to sharing a common enemy? Does a group become a nation simply by raising a flag?
Many Icelandic people fought for independence. For years and decades.
Well, they fought, figuratively speaking.
Poets and writers wrote in the mother tongue, championing this idea of a united nation, looking to the Viking golden age. Did they talk about the farming? The knitting? Nah, they wrote of the dramatic stories of the brutish Vikings and the old manuscripts, vicious weapons and fancy things.
Towards the end of the exhibition hall, you’ll find a painting. It is of Sigurður the painter. He and his friends were passionate about nationalism. They collected folk tales. Thanks to them this museum was founded in 1863 and they started collecting cultural heritage treasures. He redesigned the National Costume, seeking inspiration from the Viking Age. You should find a dress in his design at the center of the hall. He strove to spark passion amongst his fellow Icelanders for their national identity.
Jón Sigurðsson was head of the political side of the independence movement. Now that independence has become a thing to crave, some found it unjust that the Danish people got their own Parliament in 1849 and the Icelandic people still had none. They were offered a pretend one, a Parliament with consultative power only. The protested at a meeting in 1851 with the aptly descriptive phrase of “We all protest”. Little seemed to come of it. Time passed.
In 1855 they got freedom of trade. Even though the monopoly had been abolished in 1787, things had sort of stayed the same, until 1855. Around 1870, coffee and bread started to become a daily luxury. And sugar. Along with toothaches. Farmers founded co-operatives.
In 1874, a thousand years after the first acknowledged settlement, Denmark granted Iceland home rule. By the end of the 19th century, the various efforts made had their desired result. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and in 1904 a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavík, was made responsible to the Althing.
Some people spoke of Danes as bad guys, violent robbers and murderers, who sold bad products at ridiculous prices, they were even blamed for the bad weather and other disasters in previous centuries. This perception of the Danes entered history books.
In 1913 occurred the event of the flag. A young boy sailed with a blue and white flag. A Danish captain had it removed. Women of Reykjavík hurriedly made flags and in the span of this single day everybody was waving such a flag, shouting “We all protest”. This time something did happen.
They got a flag. The Danish king thought the blue and white flag was too much like the Greek flag, so he accepted another design, which had a red cross in the middle, resulting in the current Icelandic flag. One can’t but wonder whether the red cross was supposed to signify Denmark, famously known for their red and white flag. There were some who did not like this red addition but this was now the Icelandic flag.
Funnily enough, I remember learning about the flag as a child at school. There was great emphasis on the symbolism of the flag, representing the wondrous nature for which we should be grateful. I was taught that the blue represented the ocean, the white the snow and glaciers and the red the volcanoes.
Iceland became a fully sovereign state in 1918 and fully independent in 1944. A proud and independent nation, strongly rooted in their Viking heritage. With their own flag and everything. They had managed to make a nation.
In the same time period, 1870-1914, around 14-16 thousand Icelanders moved to N-America. That amounted to around 1/5th of the nation, or 20%. By the singular act of moving between countries, those Icelanders became part of an independent nation, long before their kith and kin.
And what a country to belong to! America was considered the dream country. They would say that in the West you could drink as much coffee as you liked. Coffee was at the time a sort of life elixir for Icelanders, a good, hot drink for special occasions or when men came home from a hard day’s work in the fields.
But today, they are not considered part of the Icelandic nation. Icelanders in Iceland are a nation, whereas Icelanders in Canada are an ethnic group. Does that mean that the 80% left standing are the nation? Unified and always in agreement? Nah, we can’t really say that, can we?
Did every single one of them take part in the fight for independence? That’s unlikely. What about those who liked the Danes being in charge? There must have been some who were content or felt secure belonging to Denmark?
Did only those who fought for independence belong to the nation? Along with the beserk Vikings of old, perhaps? Where, then, did they belong, the knitting Vikings and those who deserted to N-America along with those who want Iceland now to join the EU?
It surely is a tricky thing, making a nation. And the exhibition does shine a light on that, with examples such as the plastic see through National Costume (at the very end of the exhibition), intended to highlight the multicultural aspect of society, and hopefully reminding us that no matter how different we all may be, surely we all belong to the biggest nation of all. Humankind.
And I haven’t even mentioned items such as the ever smiling ventriloquist dummy, the witchcraft corner, the huge boat, the coconut chalice, the mysterious wooden carved mask, shoes made out of sheep skin, and countless other fascinating items. There are around 3000 items on display, so one might imagine you should be able to find something of interest, wherever your interests may lie.