Iceland’s National Museum

Yesterday afternoon, I paid a visit to Iceland’s National Museum, located just next to its largest university, the University of Iceland. The museum is in nicely designed church-shaped concrete structure with three floors, a gift shop and cafe. The upper two floors are the permanent exhibit with temporary exhibits on the first floor.

Like many nationalist historical museums, the permanent exhibit tries to describe the centuries needed to accomplish “The Birth of the Nation” which, appropriately, was the title of the exhibit. The structure of the Icelandic national historical narrative is very similar to that of the Norwegian one (and dozens of other national narratives around the world). There is a glorious, if violent golden age which is celebrated as the source of national virtues, symbols, and heroes. This is followed by a decline and corruption of this noble tradition, followed by a long dark domination by a foreign power when the culture and independence of the nation are suppressed. The nation then emerges once again from the darkness as its glorious past is remembered and the national spirit awakens during its struggle for freedom from its oppressor.

In the Norwegian case, the Viking age, when we raped, burned, and pillaged Western Europe are the “good old days.” Mongolian nationalists know exactly what I’m talking about when they think of their own “good old days.” I mean, this was the period when we showed the world what it really meant to be Norwegian. This is the age from which the national symbols, stories, and heroes are taken. This is followed by the “500 years of night” when we were under the control of the Danes and our language and culture were suppressed by those evil Danish overlords. Apparently nothing of any real consequence happened at night, except that Reformation thingy. We then have a century of a kind of pre-dawn frost under Swedish domination, during which Norwegian nationalists rediscover their pure language and culture and rant about those horrible centuries of damaging Danish dominion and followed by full independence in 1905.

The Icelandic case shares much of this story but with less raping and pillaging, more democracy, and Norway gets to play a brief role as the bad guy. The roots of the Icelandic nation, if I have absorbed the narrative correctly, is to be found in the democratic and individualistic glory of the Commonwealth period, dating from the settlement of Iceland in the late 800s until it finally came to an end with Norwegian domination in the mid 1200s. The democratic legislative/judicial role of a kind of parliament (the althingi-mabob, can’t remember how to spell it) is a central source of pride. The next great source of pride is the incredibly rich production of literature – which all of Scandinavia and Germany have shown their great respect for. This glorious age was followed by the dark ages of domination first by Norwegians and then the Danes. Lots of nastiness ensued, granted, not all of it Danish. The Black death came late in the early 1400s and carried off half the population. The Reformation thingy went really bad. A Danish monopoly on trade for two centuries begins in early 1600s. Volcanoes erupt in late 1780s, including one under a glacier which all caused a terrible mess. Then, by a series of steps towards independence beginning in the late 1800s and later in 1905, 1918, the nation finally completed its lengthy birthing with the founding of the republic in 1944 while, perhaps a bit ironically, under US wartime occupation.

The museum was wonderful, especially since the population of the entire country is smaller than the last Tokyo suburb I lived in. Like the Cultural House, they did a fantastic job of presenting the materials with lots of little subject-specific areas. They also had about two dozen short documentaries available for viewing at screens place throughout the museum. Each screen had 1 to 3 mini-documentaries, which in turn were divided into 2-5 chapters. Each chapter in turn had supplementary pictures and texts covering aspects that were mentioned during the documentary chapter. It was interesting, effective, and in case someone is hogging a screen with documentaries you want to see, at the end of the 2nd floor there is a “Reading Room” with half a dozen computers that have all the documentaries viewable (unfortunately, all the books in the Reading room were in Icelandic, and thus, unreadable). They also had “touch and feel it” rooms with various clothing and other items. They had little telephones you could pick up which would tell about the daily life and stories of one particular individual (such as a fisherman). They had examples of their four kinds of national dress.

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I was also impressed that the visitor was not treated like an idiot (although the little cartoon-like figures in the documentaries were slightly cheesy they helped the viewer recognize and identify players in the sometimes complicated power struggles described). I’ll give one cute example. One of the mini-documentaries surrounded the theme of Christianization of Iceland around 1000. The documentary faithfully described the process as it is recorded in the sagas (I can’t remember which, but every documentary had a “references” button with a full Icelandic language bibliography). It basically says that the entire country converted together (allowing pagan worship in private) because that was the reasonable thing to do. “An unlikely story,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed the title of the last chapter was, “Is the story true?” When it started playing, the English language voice started, “An unlikely story?” It then confesses that we cannot always trust the stories handed down but that overall, the process of Christianization did proceed quickly and with relatively little violence. How many Korean, Chinese, and Japanese museums have I visited where I wish I could push the “Is the story true?” button…

The only disappointing thing about the museum is perhaps partly due to the fact that the theme of the exhibit was “the birth of the nation.” You see, once the nation is born, there isn’t much else to say, is there? This means that the 20th century, as in the case of many other historical museums got very little space. I get the feeling that the museum’s designers just took all their 20th century material, put it in a pile and said, “What should we do with all this stuff?” Then, after a few desperate moments of silence, perhaps someone piped up with the idea, “Hey let’s put all this stuff on a kind of revolving conveyor belt, kind of like in the airport baggage claim or like one of those sushi restaurants!” Apparently everyone thought that was a good idea because that is what happened to Iceland’s history in the 20th century. I was a bit depressed to see a little pile of items labeled “World War II” as its place on the conveyor belt creaked slowly by me. There was a little more than just the conveyor belt, but considering the huge changes on the island in the last hundred years, a lot more space could have been given over to it.