From Iceland — Museums in Strange Places #18: A Visit to Sagnheimar

Museums in Strange Places #18: A Visit to Sagnheimar

Museums in Strange Places #18: A Visit to Sagnheimar

Published August 20, 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 #18: We Always Come Back to Home Island: A Visit to Sagnheimar

I visited the Westman Islands over the Easter vacation, which is a bad idea because usually it means everything is closed. Lucky for me, the director of the Sagnheimar history museum, Helga Halbergsdóttir, was kind enough to open the museum up and give me a master lesson in the history of life on the island Heimaey (literally Home Island in English).

Since the island was first settled over 1100 years ago, the inhabitants have managed to keep their community stable despite all manner of challenges, including (but not limited to) North African pirates, dangerous fishing conditions, a mysterious baby-killing disease, mass Mormon emigration, volcanic eruptions (see the last post in this series), and changes to the fishing industry.

Helga was a natural storyteller, and I ended up spending twice as long there as I originally planned, listening to her talk about her home and the crazy history of the island. Her story even had a consistent theme: no matter what happens, they always come back. Here are a few of the events and phenomenon that have threatened the sustainability of life on Heimaey:

Pirates: In 1627, three pirate ships arrived in Iceland from North Africa with 300 pirates aboard. They raided on the south coast and the Westman Islands, taking 242 inhabitants from Heimaey and 400 total Icelanders back to North Africa to be sold into slavery. In one of those perfect coincidences of history that preserve some moments more than others, an aging priest was given his freedom and allowed to leave North Africa and petition the Danish king for ransom money. When the king refused to save his Icelandic subjects, the priest returned to Iceland and, like Icelanders do, wrote a book about his experiences.

A Mysterious Disease: Over a period of about 150 years from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, the Westman Islands faced a terrible and mysterious disease that killed nearly three out of four newborn babies before they were two weeks old. The Danish king sent several doctors over the years to figure out what was going on, but no one could solve the mystery. Then, in the 1850s, a new Danish doctor arrived. He was well traveled, and brought some healing balm he had been given by the indigenous people in South America. He teamed up with a young midwife from the island, and together they managed to stop the deaths, which eventually turned out to be neonatal tetanus.

Mormons: Turns out, life in the Westman Islands in the mid- to late-nineteenth century wasn’t great. Besides the mysterious infant-killing disease, the weather was particularly cold, fishing was bad, and there was little work to be had. So, when two Icelanders returned from their studies in Denmark with the Good News of salvation and free property in Utah (the land of milk and honey), it wasn’t too hard to convince many people on the island to convert and make the long, perilous journey all the way out to the American frontier. From 1850 to 1900, 400 Icelanders left to join the Mormons out west. Half of those were from the Westman Islands, where the population was just about 500.

When I learn about Icelandic history, I’m always amazed at how hardy the people were, and the Eyjamenn of the Westman Islands take it to a whole new level. In this episode of Museums of Strange Places, you can hear Helga tell these stories (and a few others) in more detail and marvel at the fact that no matter what happens, the inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar always come back to Home Island.

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,, Stitcher, Castbox.

Learn more about the podcast and see other episodes here.


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