Discover The Small Museums Of Iceland

Hnjótur Museum
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One of the unexpected pleasures of my trip to Iceland was its small museums. Often quirky, always lovingly curated, and sometimes in surprisingly out-of-the-way places. I’ve rounded up some of my favourites for you but, first, what is special about the small museums of Iceland?

Small Museums Of Iceland

My curiosity was first piqued when I read the fascinating book The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A Kendra Greene. This is the story of the author’s odyssey around some of Iceland’s 265 (give or take two or three) small museums. She describes the way in which many of these museums have grown out of personal collections and – in some cases – obsessions.

There is a sociological element to these collections, many of them established in recent decades. More than anywhere else in western Europe, Iceland experienced very rapid social change in the 20th century, leading to a desire to record a fast disappearing way of life, and a consequent reluctance to throw anything away. And there is a cultural dimension too: many of the museums of Iceland are full, not of artefacts, but of the stories, ideas and magical beings that typify the country.

The museums of Iceland are full of artefacts rescued from the page - here we have a stuffed eagle flying above cases full of fishing paraphernalia
Saving the artefacts of the past at the Hnjótur Museum

Reykjavík Museums

I only managed two of Reykjavík’s many museums (see below). However, with more time I could have visited the Saga Museum, where waxwork figures bring the country’s history and folklore to life, Whales of Iceland (with its life-sized models), or the Icelandic Punk Museum (housed in former public toilets). And many others, covering history, art, and much more.

Probably the most famous collection in Reykjavík is the Phallological Museum. I didn’t visit myself but going by what I’ve heard, it is nothing to do with erotica, and everything to do with wizened animal body parts…

Settlement Museum

The Settlement Museum is based around the excavated remains of a Viking longhouse (a rarity in a country where a tradition of building in wood means that there are few archaeological sites). Sound effects of birds and the sea accompany you as you discover the story of the foundation of Reykjavik and the city’s later history.

As you move through the museum you come to an old house, formerly a shop. At this point you realise that you have walked through an underground passage to reach a completely different museum. This is the City Museum, comprising the oldest house in Reykjavik, built in 1762.

Maritime Museum

Strictly speaking, the Maritime Museum is not a small museum but a sizeable space full of interesting exhibits about fish, fishing and the fishing industry in Iceland. What it has in common with others in this list is a concentration on the people and their stories, with lots of voice recordings from those whose lives were once bound up with fishing and the sea.

Museum with a wooden boat and lightshow of a mermaid on the wall
Stories and boats at the Reykjavík Fishing Museum

Small Museums Of Iceland’s West Coast

Driving up the west coast of Iceland there seemed to be museums everywhere. Some were tiny, like the Arctic Fox Centre at Súðavík. And there was the occasional disappointment, like the Norwegian House and Library of Water at Stykkishólmur which were not open at the advertised times. (I had particularly wanted to see the Library of Water, an art installation of glass and sound designed to “capture the spirit of Iceland”.)

The places in this list are ones that qualify as “small” and “quirky”. So I have omitted larger (but excellent) exhibitions such as the Lava Centre at Hvolsvöllur and the Visitor Centre at Þingvellir.

Museum Of Icelandic Sorcery And Witchcraft, Hólmavík

One of my favourite places was this small museum full of stories about Icelandic witches, persecution and folklore. Apparently this part of Iceland is known for its association with magic and sorcery, and the museum tried to show how isolation and extreme hardship led to superstition and suffering. In typical Icelandic fashion one exhibit was “the invisible boy”, a cabinet that appeared to have nothing inside it…

Some distance from the museum are two additional exhibits: traditional turf-roofed cottages known as The Sorcerer’s Cottage (by a piece of serendipity these were right next to the hotel where I stayed the night). They were typical of the very poor dwellings that people once lived in, leading them to desperate measures, including attempts to conjure up magical solutions.

Turf covered huts dug into the hillside
The Sorcerer’s Cottage – a place where superstition could thrive

Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, Bíldudalur

Another brush with mythical (or perhaps not so mythical) beings was at the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum. This was an example of a collection of stories rather than of artefacts (although there did seem to be several diverse items such as books, models of monsters and various bits of marine equipment).

A film sequence told some of the stories (there are apparently many sightings of sea monsters each year). Elsewhere you could sit in a comfortable chair and listen to recorded voices recounting their uncanny encounters.

Models of sea monsters on a rocky shoreline
We encounter models of sea monsters…

Hnjótur Museum, Örlygshöfn

The Hnjótur Museum was a real curiosity: very isolated and reached via some rather potholed unmetalled roads. Theoretically devoted to fishing and everyday life, it seemed to be a prime example of not throwing anything away – it was full of fishing equipment, household items and objects that no-one needed any more. Outside were a boat and a couple of very old planes.

As with other places I visited, the museum was full of stories. A particular highlight was a 1940s film about the daring rescue of shipwrecked sailors from the British trawler Dhoon – even the reconstruction looked quite frightening!

Westfjord History Museum, Ísafjörður

The Westfjord History Museum is a series of old buildings, one of which – an old wooden house on three levels – is open to visitors. The exhibitions are based around the fishing industry in the 20th century, and how it faced threats and changes (Ísafjörður is now the only place in the West Fjords where trawlers still go out). The museum also had exhibits of daily life and, with typical Icelandic eclecticism, upstairs was a collection of accordions.

Open chest filled with fish hooks, bits of net and twine, with a hat perched on the edge of the lid
A random selection of fishing implements

Museum of Everyday Life, Ísafjörður

The Museum of Everyday Life turned out to be a miscellany of ideas and stories. There were books fixed to the wall, each with a very short (two or three paras) story stuck to the front page. There was a cinema with a series of short films on different aspects of Icelandic culture, including the relatively recent phenomenon of northern lights tourism marketing.

There were also some audio recordings about shoes, and a “sensory lab”. The latter paired poems about objects with jars where you could sniff the scent of the same objects. A real mixture!

Ósvör Maritime Museum, Bolungarvík

Finally, not far from Ísafjörður is the Ósvör Maritime Museum. This is an outdoor museum, a reconstruction of an old fishing station. It was a little lacking in information but (armed with knowledge about fishing history gleaned from the other museums) I found it an interesting spot, with turf covered cabins and an old drying hut to explore.

Wooden huts with thatched roofs beside the sea
The huts in which fishermen stayed while processing the catch

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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