Þjóðminjasafn, the National Museum, offers a comprehensive historical overview of the country’s past from the days of the Settlement right up to the birth of the Republic in 1944 and beyond. Having seen the exhibits, it’s worth having a quick look at the changing displays of contemporary photography, which are displayed within an undistinguished room known rather pompously as the National Gallery of Photography; it’s behind the museum shop on the ground floor.
The first floor
The first floor, devoted to the period from 800 to 1600, is by far the most engaging part of the museum; the video presentation within the “Origin of Icelanders” exhibition, devoted to the early Viking period and the use of DNA testing, is particularly good. Recent genetic research has shown that whereas around eighty percent of today’s Icelanders are of Nordic origin, sixty-two percent of the early Viking-era women originated from the British Isles; the conclusion, therefore, is that the first settlers sailed from Scandinavia to Iceland via the British Isles where they took wives. Informative displays show how DNA testing of the pulp cavity of the teeth of these first settlers is being carried out in an attempt to add scientific credence to the recent genetic research results.
Other prime exhibits include a small human figure, about the size of a thumb and made of bronze, which is thought to be over a thousand years old and portray either the Norse god Þór or Christ. More spectacular is the carved church door from Valþjófsstaður in Fljótsdalur (Þórsmörk), dating from around 1200, and depicting the medieval tale Le Chevalier au Lion: it features an ancient warrior on horseback slugging it out with an unruly dragon. The Danish authorities finally gave up the treasure in 1930 and returned the door to Iceland, together with a host of medieval manuscripts. Check out, too, the impressive Romanesque-style carved Madonna dating from around 1200, which hails from northern Iceland and is displayed within the “Medieval church” section.
The second floor
The second floor of the museum, devoted to the period from 1600 onwards, canters through key events in Icelandic history such as the Trade Monopoly (1602–1787) and the Birth of the Republic. It terminates in a revolving airport-style conveyor belt laden with twentieth-century appliances and knick-knacks, featuring everything from a Björk LP to a milking machine.