The Silver Of The Sea: Siglufjörður’s Living Dioramas

The Silver Of The Sea: Siglufjörður’s Living Dioramas

Words by
Photos by
Larissa Kyzer

A herring might not be suitable for cutting down the mightiest tree in the forest, but don’t underestimate its power: for much of the 20th century, herring proved it could make or break a whole community. The Herring Era Museum, in Siglufjörður, celebrates the years, roughly from the turn of the century through the late 1960s, when this miniature port at the apex of the Tröllaskagi peninsula, about an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive from Akureyri, was Iceland’s biggest boom town, swollen with “the silver of the sea.”

The Herring Era Museum, spread out over five buildings opposite Siglufjörður’s working harbour, was opened to the public in stages beginning in the early 1990s, following decades of stop-start planning and preserving by local groups. The roots of the museum can be traced back to the tail end of the herring era itself, when stocks were on the decline, but still providing herring to export to Europe and North America in the form of food; fish meal for feed and fertilizer; and fish oil, for use in all manner of household products, from floor wax to hair cream.

On the ground floor of Róaldsbrakki, a grand, deep-red wooden structure built by a Norwegian merchant in 1907, the novice herring historian is introduced to the decades when herring were still plentiful in Iceland’s North Atlantic waters, and Siglo’s catch made up one of the biggest portions of Iceland’s biggest economic sector. At the peak of the herring era, the town’s population would quadruple every summer; in newsreels from the 1930s, you see the sheer poundage of glimmering writhing masses hauled up from the ocean, spilling out from the nets, like coins scooped up from a jar in your cupped hands.

Matching bowties

In photos, trawlers are anchored in the harbour, rows deep, and the shore is dense with people. The town’s famed “Herring Girls” hunch over long benches on the piers that used to stand across from the museum, beheading, gutting and salt-packing fish in the midnight sun. Herring Girls worked whenever a trawler returned to port; local mothers would leave out the next couple meals for their kids and hustle down to work alongside the town’s daughters, and migrants from all over. The rest of the time, Siglo was swinging: on one wall on the first floor of Róaldsbrakki are black-and-white photos of the town’s combo bands, spiffy in their matching bowties, and tattered dance cards from the local hotel ballrooms.

Upstairs are several dormitory-style rooms, re-created by the museum staff with items sourced from local Herring Girls and their descendants, many of whom were still alive to be interviewed by the museum. Wooden bunk beds are filled with movie magazines, Clark Gable and forgotten Scandinavian heartthrobs beaming from the covers; with gramophones, transistor radios, hair rollers, sewing kits and flimsy plastic sunglasses. A dispassionate appraisal of the available historical evidence can only lead to the conclusion that the Herring Girls’ style game was extremely on-point. Shirtwaist dresses from the 1940s hang from rusty hooks behind doors, sufficiently well-preserved that you could wear them out. And no wonder—you imagine these young women, flush with herring-scented cash in a hardscrabble Icelandic village north of 66 degrees latitude, inaccessible to the rest of the world by road until 1940. How could they throw away the nicest thing they’d ever bought?

Living dioramas

The display keeps going, room after room. A hot-plate kitchen, a men’s dormitory, storage in the wings of the attic, rubber boots and rain slickers hanging from pegs. Back downstairs, an office with old file cabinets, vintage typewriters and adding machines. The cumulative effect is similar to what you experience in local folk museums all around Iceland, an almost overwhelmingly dense mix of preservation and junkyard, permeated with nostalgia. The Herring Era Museum displays a very high percentage of its total artifacts at any one time—perhaps a social necessity, after all its neighbors raided their attics for its collection—but the set-dressing is never careless, and the living dioramas are contextualized with extensive historical information.

And then there are more buildings! A whole fish factory, powered by its own coal-fired generators, with chemistry lab for testing fish byproducts, bespoke machinery, and a huge, fearsomely corkscrewed melting vat. Last is the boathouse—complete with a perfectly restored trawler, with decks you can scramble over, and almost a dozen more smaller craft, all laid out within a circular pier, complete with corrugated-tin fisherman’s shacks. One pays tribute to a local seaman and evangelist, “Gústi, Man of God,” who, we’re told, “would preach on the little square in the center of Siglufjörður. He seldom had many listeners, except when started storming against the great enemy, Communism. Then he would take a short break from the gospel and swear mightily.”

The Herring Era Museum (sild.is) is open daily from 10:00-18:00 daily June, July and August; 13:00-17:00 daily in May and September; and by appointment year-round.

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