The world’s cities have seen unprecedented change in the last century, and one is hard-pressed to find a better example than Reykjavík. While today Iceland’s capital is overflowing with hip bars, fine restaurants, and luxurious thermal pools, little more than a century ago it was a village of turf houses inhabited by farmers and fishermen. A new museum housed in Reykjavík’s oldest house and a new permanent exhibit in its Maritime Museum will both explore how the world’s northernmost capital went from turf town to tourist trend in a matter of decades.
Built in 1762, Aðalstræti 10 is the oldest house in Reykjavík. It would be difficult to find a more fitting spot to showcase the eventful history of the city. An iconic, black timber house with white windows, it was originally one of eight buildings constructed by national treasurer Skúli Magnússon, sometimes called “the father of Reykjavík.” It has housed many prominent inhabitants through the centuries, such as Bishop Geir Vídalín and Jón Sigurðsson, Iceland’s independence hero. The house also served as a shop and a restaurant before being restored to its original appearance in 2001.
A reconstruction of early downtown Reykjavík. Photo: Golli.
Aðalstræti 10 is now open to visitors in its latest incarnation – a museum. The house currently features two exhibits exploring Reykjavík’s history. The first is a photo exhibition titled Reykjavík 1918, one of many projects organized around the country this year to celebrate Iceland’s 100th anniversary of sovereignty. Prominent Icelandic writer Sjón put together the text accompanying the historical photos, which showcase what life was life for residents of Reykjavík during that eventful year.
“If one thinks of the people who lived in the year 1918, it seems unbelievable they would have had time to live a so-called normal life, they must have been too busy taking in historical events to love, work, dream, and suffer,” Sjón says about the project. “But just like we – who also seem to be living through an eventful time – they had their own everyday existence, in their small yet fast-growing Reykjavík, and the photographs in this exhibition bear witness to that.”
The second temporary exhibition in the house is called “Torfhúsabærinn Reykjavík” (En. Reykjavík the Turf House Town) and is based on the research of architect Hjörleifur Stefánsson. The exhibition explores the humble structure which for a millennium dominated Reykjavík’s architecture. Small and half buried in the ground, houses made of turf provided good insulation in a land where the climate is harsh and wood scarce.
The new museum is connected to The Settlement Exhibition, located at Aðalstræti 16, via an underground passage. Together, the two museums can give visitors a comprehensive understanding of life in Reykjavík from the Viking age to our time.
The Maritime Museum
Equally important to Reykjavík’s history is how its residents made a living and put food on the table. In Reykjavík’s old harbour, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, the Reykjavík Maritime Museum is unveiling a brand new permanent exhibition June 9th, detailing the hard and dangerous work of fishing which for hundreds of years has been a key pillar of Iceland’s economy.
“You could say the exhibition’s subject is Icelanders’ struggle with the sea, which both gives and takes – and how the fishing industry has shaped our society – economically and of course culturally,” says museum director Guðbrandur Benediktsson. The exhibition focuses on the period when motorboats began to replace rowboats in Icelandic waters until the present day. Visitors follow fish from the ocean to the table, through every step of the fishing industry. A collection of more than 600 artefacts illustrate the journey.
Guðbrandur says the museum’s goal is to reach both locals who work in the industry today and young Icelanders who may not be directly connected to it. Iceland’s economy has seen great change throughout the centuries, yet since its settlement to the present day fishing has been its most important industry. Built up through the hard work and sacrifices on individual Icelanders, its story is worth exploring.
“History matters to everyone”
While other cities in Europe boast an old town with centuries-old structures, Reykjavík’s cityscape is dominated by modern buildings, most less than a century old. Perhaps that is the very reason locals are so passionate about communicating the city’s history and the sweeping changes it has seen since it became a sovereign state 100 years ago. According to Guðbrandur, history should not be kept hidden in boxes in museum basements. “History is not the private business of historians and museum workers. We’ve been lucky enough to receive great support from individuals, institutions and business – people who care about our history and our roots – and that’s how we like it. History matters to everyone.”
This article and others can be found in the June-July issue of Iceland Review magazine. Subscribe here.