The grand former National Library, now the Þjóðmenningarhúsið (Culture House) has the country’s largest and best exhibition of medieval manuscripts. What makes this display of treasures particularly engaging is its accessibility; gone is the tedious intellectual pontificating which so often accompanies Icelandic history, instead you can get close up to these documents and see for yourself what all the fuss is about – an erudite account beside each manuscript serving as an adequate summary.
The ground floor
The ground floor’s warren of darkened exhibition halls, illuminated only for a few minutes at a time by soft overhead lighting, contains about a dozen ornately decorated documents, themselves in glass cases, including the magnificent Flateyjarbók, which was finally returned to Iceland in 1971 after spending three centuries in Denmark. The largest of all medieval Icelandic vellums preserved today, the book was written towards the end of the fourteenth century and recounts mostly sagas of kings. However, it is also the only document to contain the Saga of the Greenlanders, which relates Leifur Eiríksson’s exploration in Vínland. Look out, too, for the Staðarhólsbók Grágásar, one of the earliest existing manuscripts, dating from around 1270, which runs through laws from the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth, several of which are still in force today; and for the two grubby pages full of grease stains and dirty finger marks of Kálfalækjarbók, which contains fragments of Njáls Saga, one of the most widely read of all the sagas and preserved in more than fifty different manuscripts; this version dates from the mid-fourteenth century.
The first floor
It’s worth devoting a few minutes to the Jón Sigurðsson room on the first floor (entered through the door marked Fundarstofur), dedicated to the independence leader Jón Sigurðsson, though you probably have to be a national to appreciate fully some of the finer details of his bitter struggle with the Danes; a glass cabinet contains some of his personal effects. In Iceland at least, the oil painting on the wall here depicting Jón bravely standing up in the presence of the Danish king and other top officials, putting his nation’s case for independence, is much talked about and revered.
The second floor
The second floor (and the staircase leading up to it) is given over to changing displays of twentieth-century paintings and other artwork. The pieces are all owned by the National Gallery, where exhibition space is severely limited.