On the night of January 23, 1973 the inhabitants of Heimaey in the Westman Islands were woken by a violent volcanic eruption. With little warning, lava shot up to 150 metres into the air. The islanders rushed to gather whatever was most precious to them. The lava flow began to threaten the eastern side of island’s only town, and heavy ash fall was expected. Within six hours of the eruption the Icelandic State Civil Defense Organisation had evacuated almost all 5,300 Westman Island inhabitants to the mainland. The eruption of Eldfell—“Fire Mountain”—still lingers in the minds of many.
The Eldheimar Museum, which opened in May 2014, is dedicated to the Eldfell eruption and its aftermath. Now in its third year of operation, the museum sees an estimated 30,000 visitors annually. And considering the difficulties of reaching the island south of Iceland during the winter months, museum director Kristín Jónhannsdóttir is pleased with those numbers.
Born and bred on the island herself, Kristín was thirteen at the time of the eruption, and remembers that fateful night. “I didn’t think it was a volcano,” she says. “I was thinking about a war or something. It was during the Cold War, and Russia was always on our minds.”
Pompeii of the North
The idea of creating a museum about the eruption surfaced about ten years ago, when a group of people decided to excavate some of the ruins. The team began poking around, finding some well-preserved houses beneath the lava; then, five years ago, the decision was made to build a museum that would use the houses as the focal point.
“The islanders weren’t too crazy about this idea at first,” Kristín says. “It took time to convince them that it would do a lot for Vestmannaeyjar. If the mayor and the community hadn’t said: ‘This is interesting, let’s do this,’ we would have never done anything except dig a hole and have some ruins. But they believed, so this is something we all did. It does something for the whole society.”
The museum holds historical artifacts from life on the island surrounding the eruption date, as well as interactive features, and the excavated houses themselves, with high-focus lenses situated throughout the impressively preserved wreckage.
However, what’s perhaps most striking are the stories from locals, about both the eruption, and about island life. The museum was gathers archival photographs, film, and documentary footage, which is displayed throughout the exhibitions, and there’s sentiment and emotion in each individual narrative.
“The photographs and film always get more interesting, because the people who remember the occurrence are disappearing,” says Kristín. “The documentary we play here was made about 25 years after the volcano. Now, it’s been nearly 45 years. I find it nice because I’ll be walking downstairs [where the documentary plays] and hear the voice of my father, who was interviewed for the film. He died fifteen years ago, as did many of his generation. And that is something you cannot get back.”
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