From Iceland — What’s up with the Icelandic Punk Museum?

What’s up with the Icelandic Punk Museum?

Published June 30, 2023

What’s up with the Icelandic Punk Museum?
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Art Bicnick

We went to the curator for answers

It’s a staple on Bankastræti — and pretty hard to miss with its signs, posters, graffiti and speakers blaring symphonies of dissatisfied rage rockers. The Icelandic Punk Museum (Pönksafn Íslands) is both a curiosity and familiar establishment. Seemingly random, but hardly met with a shrug by locals. Meanwhile visitors often appear baffled by the sudden shift in aesthetic between a cute park, a cozy bakery and inviting souvenir shops to the deviant descent down the type of staircase most parents would have taught their kids to stay away from. What’s up with the seemingly random Punk Museum in downtown Reykjavík? We went to its curator, Svarti Álfur, for answers.

“The idea was to keep it a bit of a secret,” Svarti Álfur recounts. “So, there’s one guy who got the idea, he got the means and started to talk to people. Those people sat together and decided how to make it and they made it. They’re not so keen on letting everybody know who they are – that’s why you don’t find anything on the internet.”

The museum’s opening in 2016 was attended by Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame, who was in town for the Iceland Airwaves festival. But its origins are as fittingly underground as the place itself. Speaking of underground: why open a museum in a public toilet? And where did the toilets go?

“Basically, everything that’s supposed to be here is now somewhere safe,” Svarti Álfur says. “As I understand it, this is a historical monument. It’s one of the first public toilets in Reykjavík, having opened in 1930. They stopped using it around 2000 because of some new regulations about how a public toilet should be. This one had no access for wheelchairs and things like that, so they shut it down. It stood empty for almost 16 years. Then whoever got the place made this museum. They had to take everything out of the place and put it somewhere in a warehouse to keep it safe because it’s all historical.”

Once the place was cleaned out, a different kind of history found its way in via words by Dr. Gunni plastered on the walls alongside memorabilia and pictures taking visitors through such touchstones in Iceland’s punk history as The Stranglers playing in Laugardalshöll (and the aftermath) and Fræbbblarnir releasing the first Icelandic punk record a year later. A highlight of the exhibition are the pairs of headphones hanging from the ceiling in one room to provide some interaction.

“Each is playing a different artist from Iceland connected to the story that we’re talking about,” Svarti Álfur explains. “And we’re talking about the first 15 years of Icelandic punk, so mainly how it came to Iceland and who’s really to blame for the whole shebang that came afterwards.”

Asked about who visits the museum, Svarti Álfur says, “it’s mostly three different groups: nostalgic Punks coming in to compare experiences, curious people and history enthusiasts.” That’s not to say Punk’s dusty and dead, pinned to the museum walls like a butterfly on display. “Punk nowadays is still going on, there are still hardcore bands coming up, young bands, old bands, it’s still moving, there’s still something going on. And everybody’s got their own story.”

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