Reykjavík’s Main Museums

When I travel, I usually begin in the museums, or even just by looking at what kind of museums a place has to offer. The variety of museums is often quite telling of what is important to the community, a good case in point would be Berlin. The following is obviously not a complete list of Reykjavík’s museums but they’re all a great place to start to get to know the place a little bit better.

Image copyright Alan:
Image copyright Alan:

National Museum of Iceland

This is one of Iceland’s three official “main museums” and should be a priority if you want to learn about the history of the Iceland nation. The museum has two permanent exhibitions, The Making of a Nation in its main museum building at Suðurgata and Points of View in the Culture House at Hverfisgata. The Making of a Nation gives visitors a good overview of Icelandic heritage and history and is a treat for all those interested in Vikings and archeology, and who isn’t really? It is accessible as well as elaborate and the building also has an excellent museum shop and interesting temporary exhibitions on various subjects. Points of View is described as a “journey through the visual world of Iceland” and is a collaborative project of a number of museums and institutions. If you don’t have much time but want a massive injection of Icelandic culture through your eyes, this is just the right place. You’ll find everything from a stuffed great auk and ancient manuscripts to geometric abstraction in these rooms, a combination you’re not likely to find anywhere else.


Image copyright Jaime.silva:

The National Gallery of Iceland

Another “main museum”, focused on Icelandic art and international exhibitions. Although this is a very ambitious museum in a beautifully renovated icehouse by the city pond, the size of the house simply does not accommodate such a large role. But most museums are too big anyway and you’ll be sure to find some of Iceland’s most notable artwork here as well as a temporary exhibition on some world renowned international art. I also highly recommend this museum shop and the café on the top floor.

Image copyright Tyrone Warner:

Reykjavik Art Museum

This is Iceland’s largest museum and definitely worth the visit for all art lovers in Reykjavík. Focusing mainly on modern art, it is housed in three separate buildings, built around three major Icelandic artists: Erró, Kjarval and Ásmundur Sveinsson. They all come highly recommended but the main museum with the biggest temporary exhibitions can be found in an unforgettably dramatic building by the old harbor. Make an effort to see the Kjarval and Ásmundur buildings as well, unforgettable and unique in their own right.

Image copyright Lydur Skulason:

Árbær Open Air Museum

If you feel like getting a bit more of a touch and feel of Icelandic history, visit this outdoor museum, with around twenty old houses, each housing a different exhibition. You’ll be able to walk through a replica of an 18th century Icelandic home, play with toys from various parts of the 20th century and even rent a venue for a party or get married in the church. This museum really takes zeitgeist to another level. 

Image copyright Britt-Marie Sohlström:

National and University Library of Iceland

I’m including a library in a list of notable museums for two reasons:

  • The Icelandic word for museum is “safn” which can also mean “collection” and so the Icelandic words “photography museum” and “art museum” would literally translate as photography collection, art collection, and library, as you may have guessed, is a book collection or book museum.
  • If you think music is the Icelandic art form of choice you are in fact mistaken. It’s actually literature. I’m basing this only on my own deep insights into my own nation and our history of course. From the Viking sagas to the Nobel prize-winning author Halldór Laxness and Sjón’s lyrics to Björk songs, literature has always been something Icelanders pride themselves in doing very, very well.

Now, I should emphasize the fact that this is an actual library and although you’ll find some interesting temporary exhibitions (usually some notable Icelanders collection of letters or documents and the occasional old manuscript) a visit here will mainly be a visit to a library, albeit a very interesting one. It’s not just our grandest collection of books and magazines, it’s also our most varied collection of Icelanders. It’s full of anxious university students and tired scholars, writers who needed a desk for a couple of hours and just a couple of friends who wanted a quiet place to play chess. Pick out a translation of a good Icelandic book in your language, have some of the worst coffee in Iceland at the library’s rather ominous café and observe the real Icelander in its natural environment.

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