National Museum of Iceland

Margrét Hallgrímsdóttir

general Director

The National Museum of Iceland

Su?urgata 41 101 Reykjavik Iceland

1. The role of the National museum
At the National Museum the present meets the past. The Icelandic people ask who they are, where they are going and what they want to represent. What can we learn from past generations? In this we also ask what is the role of any national museum in the world. The National Museum of Iceland displays objects that provide insight into Icelandic cultural history - displays that encourage visitors to dwell on the past, present and future. The museum aims to nurture knowledge and innovation while maintaining a wide perspective and sense of community. The National Museum was established on 24 February 1863. During the first decades it was housed in several attics in Reykjaviacute;k - in the Cathedral, the House of Corrections, the Parliament an the National Bank - and finally in the attic of the National Library building for four decades. When the Republic of Iceland was founded in 1944, the Icelandic parliament decided, as a gift to the nation, to construct a building to house the National Museum of Iceland that opened in 1950. The chartered public role and mission has been to communicate and create knowledge of the nation's cultural heritage from the time of its settlement in 874 to the present day. The National Museum of Iceland stands at a crossroads. The museum reopened its doors in 2004 after extensive refurbishment and a modernised museum now puts effort in offering a wide variety of services to its guests. After an extensive renovation, the museum re-opened in 2004 to great fanfare. Following this the museum received a Special Commendation as one of the best European museums of the year 2006. The role of the museum is to increase and relay knowledge of Icelandic cultural heritage, from the nation's earliest settlement through to the modern day. The National Museum of Iceland has now everything a nation's flagship museum should: permanent and temporary exhibitions which chronicle the history of the nation, housed in a newly renovated building with new facilities, including a souvenir shop and a popular cafeacute;.

2. What was the history of the project: rationale, objectives, aims?
The National Museum of Iceland reopened 2004 following a complete renovation of the galleries, architectural expansion of public spaces, and preventative conservation of the entire collection. State of the art installations have been combined with conceptually new exhibitions - and artefacts that had never been on display before. The aim was to make the National Museum of Iceland a source of inspiration. To stimulate visitor's thoughts about the pioneering settlement of Iceland and its fascinating development, museum staff and design consultants created the permanent installation, Making of a Nation - Heritage and History in Iceland. Here the past meets the future and the visitor can explore how Iceland, its culture and society, has developed through the centuries. The exhibition contains about 2000 artefacts from all eras of Icelandic history, all organized in such a way that visitors can follow them chronologically or through special themes which are marked throughout the exhibition area. Here they can see everything from the graves of heathens to the first Bible printed in Icelandic to a moving conveyor belt with all of the nation's favorate gadgets from the 1900s. The role of the National Museum is varied, reflecting its legal obligation as national centre for the preservation and management of cultural heritage, cultural research programmes and promulgation of knowledge and information which relates to the cultural heritage of the nation. The National Museum conserves objects and pictures that provide insight into Iceland's cultural heritage and encourage us to keep examining the past and the present. The museum is meant to make an important contribution as the Icelandic nation grapples with such questions as where did we come from, who are we, and what makes an Icelander? In preparing the new exhibition, the museum staff set out to paint as clear and complete a picture as possible of Iceland's cultural history, guided by the fundamental theme What makes a nation?  The theme leads to several layers of information, to meet the needs of those who are looking for quick insight as well as those who wish to probe deeper. The museum''s aim is to inspire the guests to be open-minded, to see the colourful history behind our culture, as a key to better understanding to a humanity and colourful modern society.

3. Who conceived the idea? Where did the support come from? In what forms?
The design of the exhibition aimed to make use of the latest in exhibition technology. The staff of the museum conceived the idea of the museum and where supported by many others. National Museum''s staff visited numerous exhibitions overseas and many parties in Iceland and abroad have also been involved in the project, and collaborators in the field of heritage conservation and museum have contributed greatly. Other museums in the Nordic countries and Europe where helpful and their experts played an active role in the National Museum's conservation effort, and in the creation of the permanent exhibition. In 1999 a competition was held to find a design team for the exhibition's presentation and format. Many excellent proposals were received, and a Swedish design firm was commissioned for the project. For several years National Museum staff worked closely with the designers, experts, consultants and friends, on developing the exhibition.  The staff of the museum were supplemented by historians, archaeologists and conservators from Iceland and abroad, forming a strong, integrated team in a process where all employees were included in the development of the new permanent exhibition.

4. What was the professional and social philosophy of your project? Is your project relevant for the national and community development? Does it help quality of living?
The National Museum's new permanent exhibition is one of the most extensive single cultural projects ever undertaken in Iceland. Its role is to be an important cultural landmark for Icelanders and foreign visitors alike. The National Museum's function is to conserve the Icelandic heritage, and through its work to help us understand history. The guiding principle of the museum's work is collaboration in the broadest sense: collaboration with the public, with experts, with museums and universities in Iceland and abroad. The National Museum has been assigned an important social function, and thus it places great emphasis on promoting education, knowledge and creativity. One of the museum's great responsibilities is also to promote open-mindedness and open discussion on tolerance and humanity. This can be achieved through emphasizing the Icelandic nation's characteristics, but also its similarities and kinship with other nations and humanity as a whole. The museum is a forward-looking organisation, which attaches great importance to research, high standards of heritage conservation, and diverse communication of our cultural history. Our aim at the National Museum is that it be an open institution, with good relations with the people of Iceland and with its collaborators, wherever they are, and that it be a good workplace. In the years ahead the museum hopes that it can raise awareness for real qualities of life, respect for life.

5. What was the particular quality or innovation that deserved to be awarded?
Iceland presented its National Museum in Reykjaviacute;k in the year 2004. In a Western Christian society which hitherto had almost no tradition of visual art and written literature, but a very strong oral tradition, the use of objects to build a sense of national identity has been successful in many ways and the museum now has a firm foundation on which future developments can be built. The insight into what it means to be Icelandic is an important segment of European culture. With the renewing of all the museum's exhibitions and communications programmes, a new and extensive curriculum has been created for school groups of all ages. Special emphasis has been placed on extending a warm welcome to children, featuring fun hands-on learning with dynamic interactive entertainment. The museum is also dedicated to serving a vital community role and has built a modern lecture hall seating 80, teaching facilities, and will be offering custom tours for specific interests and needs. In 2006 the National Museum received important awards, from the association of the disabled and from the European Museum Forum, which should be considered in light of the successful re-launching in 2004. Following the reopening the National Museum was nominated for the Museum of the Year Award, and evaluated by the judging committee of the European Museum Forum in 2005.

6. Do you consider your project being different from the others or better than them?
I think our project is different form others because it is in another environment and different circumstances. It is not better, just different. It is very important to learn from the experience of others and adapt to our own situation.

7. How did your project work regarding human resources? Who was engaged and what were the experiences?
The new permanent exhibition took just over four years to create. Supporting the curator and the National Museum's specialists in this vast project was a diverse team of historians, archaeologists, conservators, designers and other consultants, from Iceland and abroad, who made use of new research into Iceland's history and the cultural artefacts in the museum's care. Moreover, prior to setting up the permanent exhibition, one of the most extensive conservation projects ever undertaken in Iceland was launched. The National Museum is Iceland's research centre for conservation, archaeology, ethnography, anthropology and historical photography. Offsite storage facilities were acquired early in the process of the museum's renewal, for the collection's preservation, documentation and international research.

8. What were the difficulties? Was anything easy?
During preparation diverse projects where undertaken in developing the new museum.  The National Museum has been appointed guardian of the nation acute;s heritage and in line with that role painstaking care was taken in the creation of the new permanent exhibition. Many individuals cooperated extensively with the museum acute;s staff and great strides where made in partnership with parties in the commercial sector, allowing the museum to forge new paths in creating its permanent exhibition.

9. How would you do it next time?
After busy times in preparation for the opening of the Museum in 2004, and the first full year of operation in 2005, 2006 was a year of gathering fruits and taking stock. The Museum's activities have settled into their new pattern, and visitor response has been excellent. According to a survey carried out during 2006, 95% of Icelanders regard the National Museum standing exhibition as very good or quite good, and 96% deem the image of the Museum quite good or very good.  With this experience it is safe to say that the guests of the museum do appreciate the result of hard work. But to learn from the experience next time I would make better plans and prepare the community better for the size of a project like this. That would have led to more patience while the work to place.  Also I would make the responsibility in the whole project very clear because sometime to much energy went into gray areas between the museum and those responsible for the reconstruction of the building itself.
Since the Museum reopened in 2004, a large number of temporary exhibitions have been held, and scholarly writings have been published in connection with them. Attendance figures have been good, and the exhibitions have received a good response from visitors. The number of visitors to the Museum has reached 100,000 per year, which is five times the attendance figure before the Museum closed down for renovation. The total number of inhabitants in Iceland is 300.000. The Museum's objective is that attendance figures should not fall as time passes from the re-opening, but should remain high. The years since the museum reopened may be said to have been characterised by formation of new activities in the fields of outreach and research, policy formation with respect to internal activities, and various tying up of loose ends after the extensive preparation that went into the opening, along with achieving stability in the Museum's work and its environment. This will continue to be the case in the coming years.

10. What are the experiences you would never repeat?
The experiences I would not to repeat would be the enormous time pressure we had to work under, and the lack of enough funding for all sides of the project. To much energy had to be used in raising money from sponsors.

11. How do you define professional excellence?
The role of the National Museum of Iceland re-opened in new and improved museum premises, with varied and innovative activities in which past meets present. The museum seeks to shed light on how the Icelandic nation took shape over time, from settlement to the present day. The role of the National Museum of Iceland should be to stimulate interest on Icelandacute;s cultural heritage and to inspire discussion and creativity, guided by understanding and broad-mindedness. The museum seeks to have an influence on contemporary culture and to be a venue for preservation, education, research and enjoyment. I would define professional excellence as a clear vision and courage to walk new paths. Also I would define it as the will to affect awareness and humanity in our modern world with the work of the museum.

12. Would you have any piece of advice for all who will enter some similar experience?
I would advise anyone who would enter a similar experience to plan well and involve many clever people from different directions with new ideas and courage to do something new.


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