Oh, To Be A Bird! Local History Becomes Art At Safnahús Borgarfjarðar

Oh, To Be A Bird! Local History Becomes Art At Safnahús Borgarfjarðar

Jennifer Fergesen
Photos by
Einar G.G. Pálsson & Hrefna Björg Gylfadóttir

From outside the blocky building it shares with the local library, Safnahús Borgarfjarðar passes as the kind of low-tech local museum one finds in any small town around the world. You know the type—glass cabinets full of staid-faced porcelain dolls, phased-out farm tools, empty eggshells arranged by species—the dust-coated debris of obsolescence.

In fact, through most of its history, Safnahús Borgarfjarðar fit neatly into this category of museum: it featured a smorgasbord of artifacts from Borgarnes’ past, as well as enough taxidermied animals to fill an Icelandic Noah’s Ark. The museum continued in this capacity until 2007, when Guðrún Jónsdóttir took over the position of museum director. A passionate supporter of the arts (and mother of Grapevine illustrator Elín Elísabet), she saw the untapped creative potential in this motley collection.

A different kind

Guðrún explains the museum’s metamorphosis in the orientation speech she gives to every visitor. “This is a different kind of museum. And the reason it is different is because of him,” she says, gesturing to a photograph of Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson, a set designer based in Reykjavík. She invited Snorri to reinterpret the museum’s collection through an artistic, rather than curatorial, lens.

“A snapshot of a bright-eyed baby hides a taxidermied duckling and a verse about the ephemeral nature of childhood.”

The result was ‘Börn í 100 ár’ (‘Children Throughout a Century,’ in English), a visual poem of an exhibition that opened in 2008. Snorri transformed the main hall of the museum into a floor-to-ceiling family album, its undulating black walls papered with images of daily life in twentieth-century Iceland. Some of the photographs camouflage hinged doors, behind which lie artifacts and snippets of text that share only the most tenuous of connections. A portrait of three sisters, for example, opens to reveal a stained tennis dress and a passage from a medical text describing waterbirth. A snapshot of a bright-eyed baby hides a taxidermied duckling and a verse about the ephemeral nature of childhood.

Endless, dreamlike field

Other than the hidden excerpts, ‘Börn í 100 ár’ is a textless installation; Snorri made the conscious decision not to include any of the explanatory placards one usually sees in museums. He suggests that visitors take the time to walk through the room without opening any of the cabinets. The effect is an intimate, universalising experience that anyone—regardless of age, nationality or reading ability—can understand. (If visitors wish to learn the provenance of each photograph, they can pick up a catalog—offered in a variety of languages—from the front desk.)

“The play of light is enough to suggest an endless, dreamlike field, full of birds in all the poses of life.”

Snorri and Guðrún collaborated again to create the museum’s second permanent exhibition, ‘Ævintýri fuglanna’ (renamed ‘Oh, to be a bird!’ in English), which opened in 2013. Here, Snorri tackles the museum’s prodigious collection of taxidermied birds in a disorienting space that recalls a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room. Rather than ferreting away the specimens in cabinets or drawers, Snorri arranges them in a single glass case surrounded by mirrors. Though the installation is small enough to lap in seconds, the play of light is enough to suggest an endless, dreamlike field, full of birds in all the poses of life. A soundtrack of bird sounds—not merely their calls, but their heartbeats and the beating of their wings—further immerses the viewer.

Owl eats tern

Like the artifacts in ‘Börn í 100 ár,’ the birds are arranged according to a scheme that is more poetic than taxonomical. “People sometimes ask about the birds,” says Guðrún. “Why is the owl next to the tern, for example? A child could deduce the answer to that question: because the owl eats the tern. That’s how the artist thinks.”

That artistic logic seems to inspire unusually profound thought in visitors, Guðrún has observed. “Visitors write things in the guestbook that are very personal,” she says. More than just their names. Someone wrote ‘My grandfather died last year.’ Why would someone write that in a museum guestbook? Because this is a very different kind of museum.”

“Visitors write things in the guestbook that are very personal.”

Though Safnahús Borgarfjarðar strays from the mould, it retains the most charming qualities of the small-town cabinet of curiosities it used to be. Guðrún, as well as the rest of the knowledgeable staff, are among those charms. There are few big-city museums where the director works the front desk, ready to chat about art with whoever walks through the door.

“I’ve learned a lot about the art over these years,” Guðrún says. “In fact, I think I know the art better than the artist does. I never get tired of talking about it.”

Further information: safnahus.is