During my trip to Iceland, as well as seeing the Northern Lights, which I’ve written about here, I naturally visited a lot of places in and around Reykjavik and took a huge amount of photos. But as is always the case I visited a lot of museums and galleries where photography was not allowed. So such posts as this one will have to cope with a lot more waffle from me than usual, though there will be pictures popping up of Reykjavik itself, if nothing else!
The first of these no photographs allowed places I visited was The Culture House. (I’ll be using English rather than Icelandic spelling throughout). It’s an imposing building which caught my eye immediately, though I’m not sure that comes across in the below picture – I didn’t stand around in the hail that was coming down to go stand at a better vantage point!
The Culture House is, as the name suggests, the National Centre for Cultural Heritage. It is a listed building in a neoclassical style which is hardly ever seen in Iceland and was originally built to house the National Library and the National Archives of Iceland. It was first opened to the public in 1909.
The main reason I was interested in visiting the Culture House was because of its display of medieval Icelandic manuscripts, which includes examples of the Sagas of Icelanders, and Codices Regis of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Now, I don’t speak Icelandic but the manuscripts are beautiful to look at, and all the signs are in Icelandic and English, which helped explain their historical significance.
The exhibition focuses on the period before writing – poetry was even more important to Icelanders than I’d realised – the origins and roles of the manuscripts and even portrays the process of book making itself in a schoolroom-like setting. (For a long time I was the only person in the museum aside from the staff, so I had the place very much to myself!) I didn’t know much about the Sagas before I decided to head to Iceland but I definitely want to read more about them.
Other exhibits when I visited were Millennium, a display of pieces from the collection of the National Gallery and Child of Hope, about Jon Sigurdsson who lead the campaign for Iceland’s independence from Danish rule.
A lot of the art in Millennium was modern stuff that I’m afraid I’m not all that keen on and in particular there was one sculpture called “Shy Girl” representing a life-sized girl carved out of what I think was wood, facing into the corner of the room that reminded me of far too many horror films for comfort. The exhibition is in a nice space though, up in the loft of the building, and eventually the exhibition will cover art from medieval to contemporary times rather than just the small collection it houses at the moment.
The Child of Hope exhibition was all in Icelandic so I was provided with an interesting leaflet in English explaining who exactly Jon Sigurdsson was. The exhibition, which I did have a wander around, filled a good few rooms, so I definitely missed a lot in translation. The exhibition traces Sigurdsson’s life from childhood right up to his becoming one of Iceland’s political leaders – his portrait is on the 500 Kronur banknote.
He was the leader of a group of Icelanders in Copenhagen who argued that Iceland had to break away from dependence on Denmark. Never violent, their campaign eventually lead to Iceland being granted their first constitution in 1874, becoming autonomous in 1918 (though still under the Danish king) and then in 1944 the modern Republic of Iceland was founded. Every year on 17th June, Jon Sigurdsson’s birthday is celebrated as National Day.
All in all this was a fascinating place to visit for a glimpse into Iceland’s history – though my favourite part was definitely seeing the manuscripts. Highly recommended.