Sadly, the grand former National Library, now the Safnahús (Culture House), has lost its way. Until recently the home of a remarkable exhibition about Iceland’s medieval manuscripts, today the museum has been subject to an amateurish makeover and contains nothing more than a savage hotchpotch of seemingly random items from the country’s past. While individual items may impress, the overriding impression the muddled exhibition, known as “Points of View”, leaves the visitor, is one of disappointment – this could, and should, be so much better.
The ground floor
Though the ground floor is predominantly given over to religious art, it also, confusingly, contains more contemporary items such as a photographic portrait of former Icelandic president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, plonked alongside an ornate seventeenth-century tapestry and a sculpture of Mary from the church in Vatnsfjörður, dated around 1400–1500. It’s a juxtaposition which doesn’t work. Elsewhere on the ground floor look out for the various copies, dating from 1281 to 2004, of the ancient legal document of Jónsbók; most impressive is the copy from 1363, replete with ornately decorated initial letters.
The first and second floors
These contain a mishmash of exhibits and, once again, the ad hoc combination of items is quite arbitrary: a magnificent altar piece from the church at Grenjaðarstaður, dating from 1766, for example, uncomfortably rubs shoulders with a garish piece of modern art from 1948, “Big sister and little brother” by Kristján Daviðsson. As you stumble around the museum, do make sure you see the stuffed great auk, hidden away in a small alcove off the main staircase leading to the top floor. Bought at auction in London in 1971, it’s thought the bird was killed at Hólmsberg on the Reykjanes peninsula – the last two great auks in the world were bludgeoned to death on June 3, 1844 on the nearby island of Eldey.