Culture
Museums in Strange Places #19: A Visit to Eldheimar

Museums in Strange Places #19: A Visit to Eldheimar

Published August 13, 2018

Hey there. I’m Hannah. I’m an American museum professional and Fulbright Fellow living in Reykjavík, and I’m the host of a podcast dedicated to exploring Iceland’s museums. Why? Because Iceland has a staggering 165 museums (that’s way more museums per person than most places in the world), and most of them are fantastic places run by fascinating people who are passionate about their institutions and communities.

I launched the Museums in Strange Places podcast for anyone who loves Iceland, museums, stories, culture, and exploring the world. In each episode, I visit a different Icelandic museum to discover what stories they hold and how they reflect and shape Iceland’s unique cultural identity. If you’ve got suggestions for which museum I should visit next, send me a tweet @hannah_rfh.

Museums in Strange Places #19: Memorial to an Eruption: A Visit to Eldheimar

On January 23, 1973, residents of the eastern part of the fishing town on Heimaey in the Westman Islands were woken from sleep just before 2:00 am by the sounds of a huge volcanic fissure ripping open the earth on the eastern side of the island, only a kilometer from the center of town. Soon, warning sirens let the whole island know to leave their homes immediately, and the townspeople raced to the harbor to evacuate on fishing boats. The first boat was out of the harbor by 2:30 am, a testament to the efficiency of their emergency plan. Incredible, no one died.

Within one day, a massive cone had risen to a height of 100 meters and was spewing lava at a rate of 100 cubic meters per second. The lava continued to pour from the Eldfell volcano for nearly six months, covering 400 homes in lava, the rest in ash and gravel, and nearly destroying the harbour, which would have made the town of 5,200 uninhabitable. The photos taken by those who returned when the eruption stopped show the devastation. Even the photos taken in colour look like black and white images. It looked as if the quaint little Icelandic town had been suddenly dropped into a black desert surrounded by grey mountains.

Walking around the island of Heimaey today, it’s incredible to imagine how locals were able to clear so much lava and resume life on the island. You’d never know what had happened just walking around the cute, colorful homes and shops. But, walk to the eastern edge of town, and you will find yourself looking up at rugged lava fields covered in thick moss and a huge red cone volcano lingering over the island.

It’s an easy hike to the top of Eldfell, where you can get an incredible view of the whole island and see where the new lava fields increased the size of the island. When I made the trek up to the top in April, you could see wisps of steam coming from the center of the volcano as some light rain fell onto the last bit of earth still heated after all these years. From several points on the volcano, you can also see a huge, rust-colored contemporary structure at its base: Eldheimar, a state-of-the-art museum of remembrance opened forty years after the eruption.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better way to understand what it was like to live through this eruption. The museum is one large building with an open floor-plan and a small additional exhibit space on the second floor. The first thing that grabs your eye when you walk in is a burned-out, partially collapsed home. You can walk completely around it, peering through its windows and doors where the lava flowed in and created drifts of ash and gravel. Using adjustable cameras installed inside the house, you can explore the different rooms and see what was left behind in the rush to evacuate and buried for forty years under several stories of hardened lava flow.

Except for information on the camera stations, the main exhibit has no text. The walls and dividers are completely covered in beautiful images and video of the island and the eruption. A short audio guide leads you in a slow circle around the house, giving you an immersive chronology of the eruption, beginning with life on the island before the eruption. It’s one of the best audio guides I’ve ever listened to, and the sound effects are incredible.

In this episode of the Museums in Strange Places podcast, I talk to Eldheimar’s Dröfn Ólöf Másdóttir about how the museum creators managed to find a house to excavate and how the museum is providing a space for those who lived through the eruption to talk about the traumatic experience to their children and grandchildren. I also got a chance to speak with a local woman, who was visiting Eldheimar over the weekend in order to share her stories of the ordeal with her young family members.

Traveler’s Tips:

  • Hike up Eldfell before or after visiting the museum. You can pick up the trail right at the museum and then walk back down into town through the lava fields or vice versa. It’s an easy hike (maybe 30 minutes from the museum to the peak) and the views and mineral colours at the top can’t be beat.
  • Hike up Eldfell before or after visiting the museum. You can pick up the trail right at the museum and then walk back down into town through the lava fields or vice versa. It’s an easy hike (maybe 30 minutes from the museum to the peak) and the views and mineral colours at the top can’t be beat.

You can listen to this episode of the Museums in Strange Places podcast on the following platforms or on the player below: Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Radio Public, Libsyn, Overcast.fm, Stitcher, Castbox.


Learn more about the podcast and see other episodes here.

 


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