Most of the Icelanders who migrated to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries went to Canada. But about 400 Icelanders travelled to Utah, following Mormon missionaries and the promise of a paradise on earth in Utah. The exhibition “The Road to Zion,” currently being shown at The Culture House (Hverfisgata 15, 9:00-17:00, Monday-Friday) chronicles this migration, but be warned: this is less an exhibition than a thinly-disguised missionary outpost.
The biggest problem with this supposedly historical exhibition is that it happens to be historically inaccurate. For example, there’s their take on why the migration to Utah happened in the first place. The late 1800s was not an easy time to be living in Iceland. By that time, there was no land left, people had a difficult time making a living, and the population was rapidly increasing. A promised paradise on earth, even if it was on the other side of the ocean and thousands of kilometres across mostly unsettled land, probably seemed like a far better proposition than struggling to survive at home. But the exhibition literature contends that South Iceland and the Westman Islands (where most of the emigrants came from) had “a rather high standard of living . . . so it was for religious rather than economic reasons that the Icelandic Mormons left.”
Another inaccuracy arises regarding the Book of Mormon, or, as this historical exhibit states, “another testament of Jesus Christ.” The historical exhibit describes the Book of Mormon as “the spiritual guide of an ancient people who inhabited the Americas.” Few non-Mormon scholars would agree with this interpretation. The Book of Mormon’s initial publication in 1830 was both timely and convenient: this was a time of massive westward expansion for Americans. Preaching a faith that contended that Jesus had already spoken to the North Americans added further justification to wiping out those pesky Native Americans who refused to give up their land and way of life, especially in Utah, where the Mormons were trying to settle to create “Zion” – the kingdom of God on earth.
The exhibition itself was co-sponsored by the Icelandic Association of Utah. They also wrote the exhibition literature and the explanatory text for the pieces in the exhibit, and are decidedly Mormon. A visit to their website describes a visit by the group to Iceland as such: “The group was blessed in many ways. We knew that Heavenly Father and our ancestors were there with us.” While there’s nothing wrong with a religious group wanting to set up an exhibition about their point of view of history, it’s misleading to present this exhibition as historical. Which is a shame, because the purely historical record of the migration to Utah is actually interesting enough on its own without the evangelicism.
The exhibition is comprised of three rooms. Some of the highlights of the exhibition include the first room, where half the floor is covered with a thin layer of black sand to represent Iceland’s shore. The other half of the floor is a very faithfully recreated hardwood deck of a ship, with sketches on the wall of Icelanders on board ships bound for North America. The second room features a partial recreation of a prairie turf house much like the ones the new immigrants to Utah lived in, and the third room has a wall covered with the photographs of every Icelandic immigrant to Utah who had a photograph. I was particularly interested in the most common ground between Icelanders and Mormons: genealogy. Just as Icelanders faithfully record their family members stretching back centuries, the Mormons do so as well, albeit for different reasons; Icelanders record the genealogy for largely worldly reasons, while the Mormons believe that one’s name needs to be recorded in their genealogical records in order to get into Heaven.
If you want the Mormon perspective on the Icelandic migration to Utah, then visiting “The Road to Zion” is all you need. If you want a more historical point of view, we’d suggest looking elsewhere.
“Road to Zion” Þjóðmenningarhúsið
(The Culture House) Hverfisgata 15 www.thjodmenning.is