Encounter with History at Árbaer Museum


Encounter with History at Árbaer Museum

Watch this audio slideshow about the Árbaer Museum in Reykjavík. It is an open-air museum where staff members are dressed according to old-fashioned Icelandic tradition and undertake various old-fashioned tasks. The site looks like a small village with houses from different time periods—old houses from Reykjavík and elsewhere have been relocated to the site—where various items are on display.

Photos and narration by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir [email protected]. (The information comes from Árbaer Museum.)

Click here to download the audio slideshow.


The Reykjavík City Museum, Árbaejarsafn, is a special place. Located in the Reykjavík suburb of Árbaer, it is an open-air museum where visitors are invited to step back in time. Staff members are dressed according to old-fashioned Icelandic tradition and undertake various old-fashioned tasks, adding to the illusion that visitors have gone through a time warp.

The site looks like a small village with houses from different time periods—old houses from Reykjavík and elsewhere have been relocated to the site—where various items are on display, such as faldbúningurinn, one of the Icelandic national costumes, Icelandic wool and yarn, an old printery, old school assignments in handicraft, a confirmation dress that was fashionable in the 1950s, a sign from a demonstration and wooden skis inside an old boy scout cabin.

Inside other houses the inventory and furniture have been left untouched so it almost feels as if you’re intruding when you take a peek into rooms where the beds seem to have been made only recently, the chest drawers are open, revealing pieces of clothing. Unfinished handiwork has been left by the bedside and a book lies open on the desk. It’s interesting to see the living standard of times past, that six people slept in one small room, for example.

However, the most interesting house on site is the old turf farm Árbaer. The Árbaer farm buildings are the only houses in the museum still standing in their original locations. The name Árbaer (“River Farm”) is derived from the nearby Ellidaár river.

The farm has a long history but was first mentioned in sources from 1464 when Ólöf Loftsdóttir the Wealthy called witnesses there as she concluded a property deal.

Árbaer was among the possessions of the monastery on Videy island in the 13th century. After the Reformation in 1550 Iceland’s monasteries were dissolved, and their properties, including Árbaer, passed to the King of Denmark and Iceland.

In 1704 information on Árbaer was recorded in the Register of Estates compiled for the Danish authorities by Páll Vídalín and Árni Magnússon. The estate was owned by the King, and leased to two tenant farmers, Saemundur Thórarinsson and Sigurdur Arason.

Later that same year, Saemundur was murdered by his co-tenant Sigurdur, who confessed that he had conspired with the victim’s wife, Steinunn, to kill him. Sigurdur and Steinunn were executed the following summer.

In 1881, the couple Margrét Pétursdóttir and Eyleifur Einarsson moved to Árbaer and improved the farmhouse. In its present form the Árbaer is an example of the last stage of the turf farmhouse. In Margrét’s and Eyleifur’s time the farm became a popular stopping-place on the way to and from Reykjavík.

The land of Árbaer was no longer farmed after 1948, when Kristjana, the daughter of Eyleifur and Margrét, moved away. It was proposed that the farm should be preserved. The estate had been owned by the Reykjavík town authorities since 1906.

Reykjavík Museum had been founded in 1954, and various locations had been suggested for an open-air museum in Reykjavík before the decision was made in 1957 to locate the museum at Árbaer. The museum opened on August 11, 1957.

The church at Árbaer Museum, built around 1960, is a traditional turf structure. The timbers are from a church built at Silfrastadir, north Iceland, in 1842 and dismantled in 1896. The altar and pulpit of Árbaer Museum Church are from the original church, while other fittings are modern replicas.

In the 1960s the first historic buildings were relocated to the museum grounds: Smidshús (the Blacksmith’s House) and Dillonshús (the Dillon House) were removed from their original sites in central Reykjavík to make way for new buildings. In the past 50 years many more buildings have been added to the Árbaer Museum collection.

The oldest buildings in the museum are two commercial buildings from Vopnafjördur in eastern Iceland that are believed to have been built around 1820.

When Árbaer Museum was founded in 1957 it was in the outskirts of Reykjavík, still a rural environment. Since then, the remaining small farms around the city have gradually given way to new suburbs.

Construction of the Árbaer district, east of the museum, began in the 1960s, followed by Breidholt in the 1970s, and the Ártúnsholt district in the 1980s. The city has grown to enfold the museum, which once stood out in the country.

Groups of tourists from different nationalities are offered guided tours around the site. Those who prefer not to walk can take a ride with the horse carriage, which the museum’s horses drag obediently.

Rhubarb and red currant is grown in the museum area, and in the fall, jams and jellies made from the fruit are sold in an on-site market, along with various other products from different producers, ranging from Icelandic herb tea to woolen sweaters and skirts with the lopapeysa pattern.

There is also an on-site café and Icelandic thick pancakes, lummur, are on offer inside the old Árbaer turf farm, made on an old stove. It can be tiring to take in so much information in a span of a few hours, so a good way to end the visit to the museum is to have a cup of coffee and a lumma inside the old farm, enjoy the atmosphere and imagine what it was like to live in a place like this.

Visit the Árbear Museum website for more details.