“Who belongs to the Icelandic nation?” the opening page of ‘A Rainbow Thread’ asks. The pamphlet is the physical version of a guide created by the National Museum of Iceland in collaboration with Samtökin ’78, The National Queer Organisation of Iceland. In seeking to answer that first question, it offers a queer reading of the museum’s permenant exhibition, ‘Making of a Nation—Heritage and History in Iceland.’
“It opened in 2018, for the fortieth anniversary of Samtökin ’78,” Anna Leif Auðar Elídóttir, who is in charge of the museum’s education programme, explains. “It was an idea that came from the grassroots of the organisation.”
‘A Rainbow Thread,’ which in addition to the booklet is available as a free downloadable audio guide, seeks to challenge the incorrect assumption that queer identities are only a feature of modern life. With thoughtful and questioning text, the guide encourages visitors to re-examine the artefacts and exhibits in front of them from a post-heteronormative perspective.
“It’s interesting because the National Museum is an institution—it’s part of the establishment,” Anna says. “But the guide uses very courageous words.”
“It uses the F-word,” her colleague, Communications Manager Steindór Gunnar Steindórsson, adds. “It struck me a little bit because I wasn’t expecting it. But I thought, ‘wow, this is great.’ This is progress.”
“I’m quite proud of it.” Anna says with a smile. “It’s a conversation starter.”
The guide traces Icelandic queer history from the beginning of settlement, right up to present day. However, there are significant and notable absences, and unlike other readings of the past, ‘A Rainbow Thread’ confronts them head on. A section of the guide is simply called “Silence,” and it discusses how a lack of research and representation mean that little is known about queer lives and identities between the middle ages and the 19th century.
“There were centuries where the creators of the guide didn’t have anything to talk about,” Anna says. “But they didn’t want to leave a gap, they wanted to acknowledge the silence. It also speaks to the absence of queerness as a decision of governments in some countries.”
A gay national hero?
Also mentioned in the guide is the fact that some evidence suggests that one of the first curators of the museum, Sigurður Guðmundsson, was himself queer. Sigurður was a hugely influential figure in Icelandic culture, and is responsible for designing the Icelandic national costume. Despite his respected position in society, there were always rumours that he was effeminate and possibly attracted to men.
“They don’t have definite proof that he was gay,” Steindór says. “But there are signs. He sent drawings of a penis in a letter to his friend, for instance. He was into dresses and known for not being a particularly masculine man—he was in touch with his feminine side.”
“We don’t know for sure how he identified,” Anna adds. “This is based on rumours. Perhaps he was just ahead of his time,” she laughs.
Starting a conversation
Both Anna and Steindór are delighted with the response they have received to the exhibition so far, and hope to see the project continue and develop over time.
“This is just the start of something,” Steindór says enthusiastically. “We will probably add to it—hopefully Samtökin ’78 will come back to us with fresh ideas and updates.”
“But we are also looking forward to other kinds of collaboration,” adds Anna. “Not only with people from this organisation but from different groups in society too.”
“It’s very important,” she continues. “And that’s what museums are for: to be a part of the community that we live in. A neutral place for different conversations.”
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