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A future bright

Right now, Vikingaheimar is in a very interesting position. The financial collapse here in Iceland occurred just as we were set to open, and delayed the opening date by several months. It also meant that some of the projects we were planning, in particular the hands on children’s interactives, had to be done in a much more “low budget” manner. We also decided to roll out the computer displays and the new exhibition features at a more leisurely pace, instead of trying to have everything done at once for the opening.

This strategy has worked out fine. It is in fact more the norm here in Iceland, and even our international visitors seem very understanding and supportive. Clearly the scale and quality of the building and the existing exhibition belies that there is significant impetus behind the museum, and it will just take time for the full vision to be realized.

So after living through the first bumpy year, and finding ways to finance the computer displays and new exhibition components and translations into Icelandic (the low budget children’s interactives will hopefully find funds to be redone someday soon), I thought the museum was sort of hitting its stride.

Well, we have hit another financial snag. One of the owners of the museum, in fact the controlling owner, is the township of Reykjanesbær. That township has faced a number of challenges, even before the collapse of the banking system, including the loss of quotas, but most significantly the withdrawal of the NATO American base from Keflavík in 2006. At that time, the financial outlook in Iceland was rosy, and the mayor of the township was enthusiastic that the base closing would lead to new, better, and more diverse opportunities. He set about encouraging lots of new enterprises both on the converted base and around the town.

Vikingaheimar was not specifically tied to this effort, since plans for the museum began in 2003. But, in as much as our exhibition talks about the links between Iceland and North America across the North Atlantic, it is still intellectually linked to the Nato base. It gives a historical frame to Iceland as part of a larger North Atlantic arena, and now that the base is gone, the museum’s placement in this township seems less natural.

For the township, the closing of the base, coupled with the township’s own desire to develop and expand, collided, rather unhappily, with the financial collapse of fall 2008.

Now the township likely will need to turn to the federal government to help. As an institution controlled by the township, and one which has both significant start up debts and significant long term possibilities, it is indeed possible that something might change vis a vis the ownership of Vikingaheimar sometime in the near future.

I am personally very excited about these discussions, because no matter what, such an overhaul and review will require everyone involved to make decisions about priorities and streamlining structures. As a newly established institution still trying to position itself in terms of its long-range growth objectives, such discussions will surely be fruitful. Although a bit nerve-wracking, I am genuinely looking forward to it.


VIP Visitor

This upcoming Friday, August 27th, the head curator from the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies Center, Dr. William Fitzhugh, will be coming to Iceland. He was in charge of the exhibition Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, a portion of which is now on permanent display at Vikingaheimar museum.

I of course worked with Dr. Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian and consider him not only a colleague but a friend. So I am very much looking forward to showing him how the exhibition we worked on together has taken shape here in Iceland. I have kept him “in the loop” about a number of decisions I was making regarding the exhibition, but he is actually the only person that will really be able to appreciate the difference between the exhibition as it was at the Smithsonian, and the exhibition as it is now in Vikingaheimar. I am not worried that he’ll be displeased with anything, because really in every decision I made over the last two years, I kept firmly in mind the training I had received at the Smithsonian under his tutelage. But I do know what a critical and demanding exhibition curator he is, so I expect a number of critiques and helpful suggestions.

Vikingaheimar received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavík Iceland to support Dr. Fitzhugh’s visit, so I have been planning a number of events for him between Friday and Tuesday the 31st. We will have a reception for him Friday night at Vikingaheimar, and he’ll be holding public lectures in the Westfjords (on Saturday the 28th) and in Reykjavík (on Monday the 30th). Then the Embassy is hosting a dinner for him on the 31st.

I expect his visit will generate some new ideas about what else we could be doing at Vikingaheimar, and also how we could be improving on what we are doing. It is all very exciting!

Crew members

When Captain Eggertsson sailed Íslendingur from Iceland to New York harbor during the summer of 2000, he had a crew of eight with him. On June 17th, 2010 we hosted a dinner for the crew to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of that voyage. The evening was a lot of fun, since of course this is a group of adventurous, brave, smart, funny people who know each other well.

In preparation for the event, I wanted to redo the display of the crew members I had done somewhat in haste last year. Before departing in 2000, the crew had their portraits taken by a professional photographer, and Gunnar had duplicate prints of them all. I selected a headshot of each one and arranged them on a raised platform. But I was never satisfied with how it looked. So before the event on the 17th of June, I asked a plexiglass maker here in town to print up all the crew names on plexiglas, and then I planned to cover the photos with that. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, it has been my principle to add new components to the exhibition utilizing the same design elements–colors, fonts, stylization–as is in the original Smithsonian exhibition, since that of course was very nicely done and forms the bulk of our current exhibition.

So I asked this local plexiglas maker here in Reykjanesbaer to print the crew names in the same Albertus font, and the same white color, used elsewhere in the exhibition. As the event on the 17th grew closer, this piece had still not arrived, and I was growing anxious. I did not want the crew to come and not see their names nicely displayed. Well it turns out that in order to print in white letters, the plexiglas maker had had to cut out each letter one by one; he could not print white letters on clear film, since he does not have white ink. This makes sense of course; a four tone printer cartridge does not include white, since the assumption is the paper is white.

Anyhow, we installed that for the even on the 17th, and the crew was pleased. But I was not. The letters were a tiny bit crooked here or there, from where the knife had nicked them wrong. And a couple of letters we missing. And well it was just hard to read.

So we discussed it and he said if I could choose a color other than white, then he could print on clear film and it would all be much better. So I did that. Only silly me, I chose to use the burnt yellow color found elsewhere in the exhibition for text against blue backgrounds. Yellow letters printed on clear film is no better than offwhite text printed on white paper. If you stood just the right way, and squinted at a particular angle, you could read the text.

Now I do not expect anyone to go through all of that just to read the names of the crew. The goal is to make information readily available. So now the local plexiglas vendor is trying it one more time, black letters on clear film. Though not in keeping with the original Smithsonian design, I am relatively confident the visitors will appreciate more not having to stoop to all sorts of weird angles just to be able to read something so straight forward as this.

Image of the Vikings

This morning I met with a colleague who is organizing a symposium in the fall on the popular view people have of the Vikings, and more specifically–since that is a very broad topic indeed–on what impact the popular view of the Vikings has on the scholarly community.

There is a growing awareness on the part of scholars in the fields of history, archaeology, and museum studies that popular attitudes about historical subjects influence not how our audiences interpret what they read and hear from scholars, but also affect the scholars themselves in terms of what topics of research they choose to pursue. In some cases, especially in regard to the Vikings, scholars have tended of late to try to research topics that do not fit into the public’s existing idea about the Viking Age. Research into Viking sword types for instance reached its peak in the 1920s and 30s, and nowadays scholars are more likely to take on projects analyzing what sort of grains the Vikings used in their bread or where the water came from that they drank as a child. All of this is of course interesting and valuable scholarly knowledge, but because it is so far removed from the public’s frame of reference for the Vikings, the two groups fail to communicate.

Some scholars have in fact taken up the practice of not using the name Vikings at all, because it has such a fixed, and in many respects erroneous, connotation in many people’s minds.

This was, and is, a major concern in terms of how a museum like Vikingaheimar organizes its exhibitions and programming, what sort of public relations material it produces, and of course what content to include or not include in the museum.

Anyhow, I am very much looking forward to having an opportunity to discuss this complex issue with some of my Icelandic and Nordic colleagues in the Fall, and hoping of course for lots of feedback from the members of the public that attend.

Summer camp for kids

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Böðvar Gunnarson, a Viking re-enactor that lives here in Reykjanesbær and specializes in blacksmithing, has been at the museum this week, holding a course on Viking age arts and crafts. On Monday he taught the kids about Viking age open air cooking techniques, and they tried their hands at baking their own bread. On Tuesday they made themselves belts and coin purses, which the kids have since proudly worn each day. On Wednesday we went to two Viking Age ruins here in Reykjanes, and talked about how the Vikings selected their homesites and utilizes the resources in the area. It was especially fitting that one site, which the lead archaeologist claims was selected because of its proximity to marine mammal beaching areas, had a dead beached whale for the kids to look at! Böðvar told the kids what each whale bone could be used for. The largest national paper came and took pictures of the kids that day, so we are looking forward to seeing the article with everyone’s names.

Yesterday a colleague and I took over, and taught the kids about Viking runic script and Viking Age poetry. We then let the kids carve their names in runes and compose their own kenning-riddled poems about sailing over the sea and raiding!

Today is our last day, and we plan to raise a tent, build a fire, do some wool working, make some necklaces, and grill some meat. Should be good fun.

Local museum, local politics

Well Víkingaheimar was a little microcosm of political activity the last three weeks, ever since Gunnar Marel Eggertsson declared his candidacy for the Venstri Græn party. This caused a bit of a stir, since the museum was started with the support of Árni Sigfus and other Sjalfstæðimenn. It added a layer of tension onto normal discussions and meetings. Hopefully, with the election over, we are all more or less over ourselves, and can stop being so uptight and performative. There is actual work to be done, with the summer tourist seasons just about to heat up, and a museum really ought not to be about promoting a political group. Museums have a learning agenda, a particular point they are trying to make, on their own, which is tricky enough as an interplay between text, object, architectural space, and visitor experience, without adding onto that the complexity of local politics.

Translation trouble

By a bit of an odd coincidence, Vikingaheimar has two theatrical projects going at once. One is the full scale production of a play aboard Íslendingur, which will premier this Friday night. Here is the facebook page for that event. A group of theatre professionals are putting that together, led by a woman who also staged the Icelandic version of Mama Mia recently. We expect her directing of the Journey of Guðriður to be dramatic and beautiful.

On a more modest scale, I have been “producing” an Icelandic translation of a little bit of theatre I originally scripted when I worked at the Smithsonian. One of the unique features of Icelandic archaeology is the close association it has always had with the written sources describing the Viking Age settlement of Iceland, the Icelandic Family Sagas. In the case of the Viking exploration of North America, there was written evidence in the form of the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders long before there was ever archaeological evidence. This presents a number of interpretive challenges for both archaeologists and literary scholars, but I want to mention here the way in which it presented a museological challenge to us at the Smithsonian.

There is no way to adequately talk about the Vikings in the New World without talking about the Icelandic sagas. But other than borrowing the preserved 14th century manuscripts which contain copies of these sagas, how could we “exhibit” narrative tales? We did borrow the manuscripts, with special permission from the Icelandic Parliament, but in one of our exhibition meetings we were all sure this would not be enough to really capture their importance for understanding the Vikings travels to North America. So I suggested we should make an audio program with the Vinland saga tales. Ornölfur Þórsson helped me out by suggesting the story should be told as a conversation between a monk and a seasoned oral performer, with the idea the monk would listen to the story and then write it down. Joe Madeira, the exhibition producer, and our designers (MFM design) then put a ton of work into the logistics and technical aspects of such an audio display. We decided there should be subtle visuals to accompany the audio program, kind of like shadows on the wall. So I wrote a script, 10 minutes in length, by combining the elements from the known sagas into one condescend narrative, and our designer came up with figurines that lit up in time with that script. We also made two mannequins, one to be the monk and the other one to be the storyteller. Then Joe had a section of a long hall made, where visitors to the exhibition could sit down and listen to a portion of the story, while seeing the lit up figures. We were all pretty happy with the result.

When that component came here to Iceland for display in Vikingaheimar, I was worried we would not be able to use it, not only because the system was all designed on 110 voltage and Iceland uses 220, but also because the text is all in English. Indeed people in the cultural sector here in Iceland have been a little dismayed that sagas originally written in Icelandic are not being told in Icelandic in Vikingaheimar.

Today we take a major step towards rectifying that. Gísli Sigurðsson from the Árni Magnusson Institute was kind enough to take a look at the English script I had made, and rewrite it in Icelandic, using much of the wording from the original sagas. The the cultural minister in town arranged for one of the most distinguished actors in Iceland, Gunnar Eyjolfsson, to record the part of the old storyteller, and found a suitable actor for the young monk. Today we are all meeting in a recording studio in Reykjavík, and I am really excited. It will be so nice to hear these sagas told in their original language.

Hopefully installing the Icelandic audio will go smoothly. That is next week’s challenge.

Blacksmith shop

Böðvar beside some of the items he makes for our sales shop.

The Viking Age inspires a lot of re-enactors. Gunnar Marel was of course inspired to build and sail his ship using Viking Age techniques. But there are other re-enactors interested in retrieving other aspects of Viking Age know-how. Here in town there lives a friendly, dedicated, Viking enthusiast who specializes in Viking Age blacksmithing. He does not do replicas, the way Gunnar does, but rather seeks inspiration from the Viking Age. But he looks very much like  a Viking, with long hair and a braided beard, and he believes in the Viking pagan gods. So he is a re-enactor not just on the  weekends, the way some are. Nope, he just lives with the Viking Age on his mind all the time.

He and Gunnar are gathering wood and stones and clay to build a blacksmith hut out in the field beside the museum. It will be a bit of an experiment to see if Icelandic clay can be used in a kiln or not.

I am looking forward to seeing the progress of their endeavors, and I am sure our visitors will be also. He stops by my house every few weeks, to let me know how it is going, just they way they would have done it in the Viking Age.

Play on board

Before the building was even completed, we started wondering how we should let visitors go on board the ship. There were structural questions about the durability of the ship, and also questions about how best to present the ship: is it a precious object that ought to be looked at but not touched, or should it be treated like an everyday object, and people can do what they liked with? Coming up with a good middle ground, where visitors physically engage with the ship but still respect it, was difficult. The building was designed so that visitors can walk under the ship, and I insisted it be low enough so that people could touch the keel, feel the grain of the wood. The computer monitors around the ship also encourage close looking and interaction.

But when we let visitors walk onboard the deck of the ship, well, the echo of footfalls on thick wooden planks filled the hall. Not only was it noisy, it was also dangerous. A Viking ship has a low freeboard, so it is easy for anyone on deck to jump off. But since our ship is elevated, and the floor below stone, this represented a considerable safety concern.

Then our business manager came up with the idea that we should stage a play on board the ship. A museum in western Iceland has been doing that, using the loft of their building for evening performances, and it has been a great way to get people to come to the museum. So from a business perspective it made sense. But I immediately thought it was also a good idea in terms of solving our “people on board” issue.

Now visitors can be formally invited on board when they have a ticket to the play. This addresses both the safety issues, since they will of course be ushured on board by staff, but also the issue of engagement. The play is about a woman’s journey from Iceland to Greenland and then to North America 1000 years ago. It is a perfect way to engage with the ship as an experience, a moment in time, a link to the past.

It is really exciting and such a nice complement to the current content of the museum. Looking forward to seeing the first performance, May 9th!!

The Smithsonian connection

Between 1997 and 2003, I worked at the Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution. We were part of the Anthropology Department in the Natural History Museum. I do not mind admitting how much I miss working there. Such a remarkable group of colleagues, dedicated and broad-minded.

One of the last things I did before leaving there was to arrange an agreement between the town of Reykjanesbaer and the Natural History Museum which allowed a large portion of the exhibition Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga to be on long term loan to the town of Reykjanesbaer. The township had just purchased the Viking ship Islendingur, and so the mayor of the town and I quickly agreed that this exhibition would be the perfect complement to the ship.

Although I have a tiny piece of the Smithsonian with me here in Iceland, I still miss the colleagues and the comradery. So I am looking forward to this online conference. Though I have been able to keep up with the goings on of my immediate coworkers, there are so many others doing neat things that are also fun to hear about. This also seems to me to be a good use of technology and outreach. I hope it works out well for everyone!