“A lot of them want to know about the Vikings, so I have to explain the different way we use the term in Iceland – there weren’t that many ‘true’ Viking expeditions from here.” When you hear this from a guide at a museum, you know that you’re someplace striving to educate, not just make a buck. Rarely are tourists exposed to anything approaching historical accuracy regarding Vikings, but the Settlement Museum on Aðalstræti is on a mission.
The truthtelling starts at the title, in fact. Taking its name from the estimated arrival date of the first settlers in this country, 871: Plus/Minus Two Years. It seems strangely specific for a title, and one can’t help but picture a long and bitter feud between two petrified old archaeologists, culminating in this comical compromise. Whatever the story behind the name, it’s to the point and sparks immediate intrigue at the same time.
When you walk down the steps towards the main exhibition area you will notice some historical titbits written on the wall, including a comparison of when different islands and continents were first known to have been inhabited by humans. Iceland appears to be a relatively recent discovery, in the larger scheme of things, and you may be interested to know that Madagascar was colonised around the same time. Then again, you’re probably not.
Thankfully the main event is thoroughly engaging. An underground archaeological dig has been brought to life with an impressive range of fancy modern technology that is liberally taken advantage of in the presentation of information. The uneven floors attest to where you are, but you are surrounded by touch screens and optical illusions designed to give you insight into what life was like here in ancient times – before it became an abandoned ruin or a museum. The result is deeply impressive, at least by the standards of similar attempts that have been made in the past. The presentation simply has to be seen to be believed, with flat screens showing eerie ghost-like visuals of long-dead people going about their daily business in early Iceland. Inside a special multimedia room you can use your fingers to rotate a three-dimensional image of an early dwelling, zooming in and out while simultaneously getting a topical audio tour explaining in detail the various parts of the structure. There are also buttons you can push to illuminate certain parts of the actual excavation, and a virtual map where you can touch words and concepts with your fingertips to bring up more detailed menus. If the holodecks on Star Trek were used to teach early Icelandic history, this is what it would look like.
In addition to the newfangled machinery, the Settlement exhibit also makes use of the most tried and tested method for conveying key information at a museum: the walking guide. Our guide, Jón Páll, turned out to be an informative and enthusiastic history student. Beyond the difficulty with the term Viking, he explained that “People also ask about the dating procedures, so I spend some time explaining how the ash layer from a volcanic eruption in 871 helps us keep track of what happened before and after colonisation.” Generally, he said, people are most interested in the roots of the Icelandic people. In fact, we soon overheard a tourist marvelling at a teleprompter that quoted genetic research as revealing that 80% of male settlers were Nordic, but over 60% of early Icelandic women were Celtic slaves.
“Sounds like those Vikings made a pit stop for some pretty ladies on the way over!” said one middle-aged woman from America, giving a younger Icelandic girl a suggestive wink.
Reykjavík 871 +/- 2, The Settlement Museum, Aðalstræti 16, 101 Reykjavík.
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