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.
How the Seals are Saving Hvammstangi
The dusk sky was a deep blue, striking against the fresh layer of snowfall, as I turned off the Ring Road towards the little harbour town of Hvammstangi. This was in the middle of that snowstorm that hit the Southeast and West a few weeks ago, and I had almost canceled my visit to the Seal Center to head straight back to Reykjavík. But the random nature of my appointment seemed like fate. I was in Akureyri getting a few recordings for the podcast—the only time I’ve planned to be north of Snæfellsnes before the summer—and just as I set out back to Reykjavík, I got a tweet from the head of the Seal Center, Sigurður, inviting me to come by and do an episode about their museum. “Excellent. How about in two hours?” I replied, silently thanking the scheduling Gods for how easy it is to connect with total strangers in Iceland (I often reach out to museums via Facebook since they are more likely to respond to that than an email).
Sigurður describes Hvammstangi as “1,200 people living on 4,000 square kilometers with 38,000 sheep.” The Selasetur, as it’s called in Icelandic, is located in the heart of Hvammstangi’s little harbor in an old slaughterhouse. The big red building is representative of how the Seal Center is helping to turn old industries into new opportunities that are redefining Hvammstangi and pointing it towards a sustainable future. When we spoke, Sigurður recalled childhood memories of seeing sheep skins stacked to the ceiling in the building and seal jawbones stacked outside. Today, the lower floor is a center dedicated to studying and helping the seals, while the second floor is a restaurant that caters to both locals and tourists.
Inside the museum, the first thing that catches your eye is a lovely old boat in the middle of the space. As Managing Director Sigurður Líndal Þórisson explained to me, this boat is another powerful symbol of how Hvammstangi has changed. It was owned by a man named Eðvald Daníelsson, who used it to hunt seals. Seal hunting used to be a big industry in Hvammstangi. They would eat the meat and sell the skins. That industry collapsed in large part due to animal rights concerns. Today, that man’s grandson, who is also named Eðvald Daníelsson, also owns a boat and makes his living from seals. He runs a seal-watching business.
The Seal Center is far more than a museum. With a team of scientists, a person studying tourism, and two full-time museum professionals, they have an ambitious agenda: to study the seal populations breeding in Iceland and share their research internationally; to bring tourism to Hvammstangi; to educate the tourists who come in about the fragility of nature, and finally to make sure that those who come see Hvammstangi’s natural attractions have a meaningful experience that doesn’t harm the seals. With over 40,000 tourists coming through the Center’s doors each year to get travel information and book seal-watching excursions, that’s no small task.
Check out the lastest episode of Museums in Strange Places to hear more about their work, the history of seals in Iceland, the challenges facing rural Iceland, and how they created a new digital interactive display that shows the real travels of a single seal pup as he explores his home waters along the north coast of Iceland. The Seal Center is open all year round, so if you stop by, tell Sigurður I say hi!
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