I didn’t remember the National Museum of Iceland, the oldest museum in the country, from previous visits to Reykjavik. Then I found out why. It was completely closed for 6 years during renovations and reopened in 2004. What’s On in Reykjavik, the 2015 edition, claims that NMI is where visitors will see “The nation’s most precious treasures.” This is absolutely true. Display items begin with a Viking ship and end with a modern airport that makes the whole world accessible to isolated Icelanders.
The National Museum of Iceland, which has been around since 1863 except for those 6 years, documents Iceland’s trouble-filled history since settlement. It takes 2 floors, the 2nd and 3rd, and 2,000 objects to accomplish this. Due to its location just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland remained uninhabited far longer than other Planet Earth land masses. Vikings from Norway began arriving about 1,100 years ago. They established an unusual society run by chieftains, not kings. The main artifacts that survive from this era are weapons, jewelry, and Iceland’s national icon, a tiny figure that is either Jesus Christ or Thor. Mount Hekla erupted horribly in 1104.
These chieftains and the people they ruled were Catholics. They lived on farms and monasteries were established, but then things began to change. From 1200 to 1600 Iceland was under the thumb of Norway and then Denmark. The 13th century was a time of serious strife, fishing became the main industry, and Iceland became Lutheran. Two major epidemics occurred in the 15th century, and half the population died each time.
During the 17th century witchcraft and sorcery arrived from Europe, but it took a different form in Iceland. Practitioners were men hoping to harm their enemies. Of the 24 humans burned at the stake for sorcery in this century, 23 were men. The crude mask above is from this era. It was found during archaeological research.
Plague and famine returned in the 18th century, especially in the 2nd half when the weather became less favorable. When this century arrived, the population was more than 50,000. When it ended there were only 47,000 Icelanders. Nevertheless, it was a progressive era in which reindeer were imported, wool working flourished, etc.
In the 19th century, Iceland moved toward independence, a middle class formed, fishing thrived, and foreigners began to discover it. Some of them wrote books about their travels. By the 19th century’s end so many Icelanders had moved to the United States that nationhood was threatened.
In the 20th century the people won their independence. In 1944 Iceland cut off ties with Denmark, a modern republic emerged, and 5 years later it joined NATO. At the 20th century’s beginning, Iceland had few artists other than writers like Haldor Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. By century’s end all arts were flourishing.
The 21st century has been tumultuous so far. The world’s worst economic meltdown occurred in Iceland in 2008, historic volcanic eruptions have closed airports in Europe, and tourists like me are coming in record numbers to see this totally unique island nation of only 325,000 people who are wondering how they can accommodate so many visitors.
If you’re one of the 1.5 million people who will travel to Iceland and wonderful Reykjavik in 2016, the National Museum of Iceland is both 5 Compass and the best place to learn about this singular culture. In a couple of hours you will develop a basic understanding of where Iceland has been.