There are 56 words in the Icelandic language for “snow & ice”. In English, we have “snow” and “ice”. If there can possibly be that many words for the different conditions of that-icky-cold-stuff (now I guess we have three), then perhaps there is a lot to say about it, enough to fill a museum, and perhaps, then, Icelanders are the best to talk about it.
At the Glacier Exhibition in Höfn, they do, at length, tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the country’s prize pile of ice, Vatnajökull Glacier, and glaciers in general, as well as its surrounding history, and science. Filling in the corners of the thorough overview of glacial nature conservation, they also offer the warmer side: the cultural aspect of glacial research.
Launching into the discussion of how the glacier has impacted the Icelandic people and society in its very first exhibition room by listing every one of the aforementioned 56 words on a clear plastic panel, the museum then abandoned the 56 word discussion, and got to the fun stuff.
Upstairs, in the corner of one of the rooms, a flat-screen television was showing clips from the James Bond film Die Another Day, which was shot on-location on the glacier, and in the opposite room was a display comparing the clothes and gear used by climbers past and present. In the background in the second room, there was a sampling of what I can only assume to call glacier hiking songs: a sombre folky and rather long collection of tunes sung out boldly by a chorus of men.
The exhibit then, focused mainly on the historical aspects of the glacier, presenting displays about tours on Vatnajökull through history with maps and photographs. It offered no educated theories or research about the cultural aspects, but instead did a thorough, and in the long run impressive, job of chronicling its history.
Closely beside the action-packed bursts of Bond stood what was perhaps the highlight of the exhibit, an enormous walk-in plastic ice cave. Up the walls of the lofty walkway hung blue sheets of (plastic) ice, casting gloomy shadows around the streams of green light coming from the room at the far end. In a small opening in the “ice” wall, there was a tiny one-dimensional silhouette of a man trapped inside an icy crevice. Beside it a sign explained the story of nineteen-year-old Sigurður Björnsson, who was looking for his sheep on Breiðamerkurfjall, a mountain that extends into the Vatnajökull glacier, when an avalanche occurred. Trapped 28 metres under the surface of the ice, Björnsson, only able to move a single finger, maintained consciousness by singing hymns loudly to himself until the rescue squad, following the sound of his voice, found him 24 hours later.
As I walked further down, the eeriness of this plastic tunnel was further enhanced as I started to barely make out “Sigurður” singing hymns in the background behind one of these walls. I followed the light to the end of the tunnel where there was another opening in the wall, this one big enough to walk into. Here the floor was made of glass and it was slippery like ice, and a pillar stretched between it and the low ceiling. The sound effects this time were of dripping water, and through yet another opening, through about six layers of plastic ice, water was streaming down the wall, soaked in green light projected from somewhere in the small opening and reflected all around by the floor. Though my travel mates stood close by in just in the next room, engrossed in the adventures of Bond, the cold walls imposed on me an overwhelming sense of solitude.
The organization in the museum then involved each room in a theme. The plastic room, I later discovered, was called “experience”. In the second gallery on the first floor, for example, there were numerous 3D exhibits of the animal life on and around the glacier. In one of the main displays stood a giant stuffed woodland caribou, a stuffed hooded seal and a stuffed arctic fox, almost smiling as he lightly rested his paw on the breast of a stuffed dove lying on the ground. The room was titled “Nature and National Parks”, and its close, but obviously not close enough, neighbour was “Nature Conservation”.
Walking out it was somehow surprising that the air in Höfn was a little bit more chilly than inside. Outside, I could see where the outlet glaciers reached out towards the village. After spending a full hour inside, I felt interested and just about prepared for some glacial exploration.
ICE-land Glacier Exhibition, Hafnarbraut 30, 780 Hornafjörður. www.hornafjordur.is/is-land/english
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