While Iceland’s museums may be concentrated in the capital of the most densely populated city, Reykjavík, there are museums of various proportions to be found elsewhere as well. From Viking history and culture to modern art and sculpture, Iceland’s museums will give you an overview of why this small island in the North Atlantic is worth a visit.
The National Gallery of Iceland, Listasafn Íslands, was founded in 1884 and moved into its current building, originally constructed as an icehouse, in 1987. The main focus is on 19th and 20th-century Icelandic art, including the most valuable pieces of Icelandic art in the country. Exhibitions feature a rotation of works by both Icelandic and international artists. The museum’s most recent acquisition is the archive of the pioneers of video art, Steina and Woody Vasulka, the Vasulka Chamber. The Vasulka Chamber opened in 2014 and aims to be a center for electronic and media art, the only one of its kind in Iceland.
The Culture House, Safnahúsið, was built between 1906-1908 to house the National Library and National Archives. The building is considered one of Iceland’s most beautiful buildings and has been protected as a historical building. The Reading Hall is remarkable and has been preserved in its original form. Currently on view is the ambitious exhibition Points of View, which gathers together all aspects of Iceland’s visual heritage through such diverse mediums as manuscripts, paintings, and plant specimens – installed according to human-oriented directives so as to encompass the work as well as the viewer’s experience.
The Culture House, Hverfisgata 15, 101 Reykjavík +354 530 2210
Opened in 1973, this building is a fine example of Nordic Modernism – displaying a permanent collection of one of Iceland’s most celebrated landscape painters, Johannes S. Kjarval ( 1885-1972). The museum also features a rotating exhibition of Icelandic and international artists. The layout of the building offers serene views of the surrounding park, a very active place on a sunny day.
Kjarvalstaðir, Flókagata 24, 105 Reykjavík +354 411 6420
Situated in the old harbor area of Reykjavík, Hafnarhús, or harbor house, was built in the 1930s. This is where to find the most contemporary exhibitions by both Icelandic and international artists. The museum features a permanent collection of works by Erró (1932- ), one of Iceland’s most well-known Postmodern artists and a pioneer of Pop Art. In 1989, the artist donated more than 2,000 works and personal artifacts to the museum.
Hafnarhús, Tryggvagata 17, 101 Reykjavík +354 411 6400
Ásmundursafn is dedicated to the Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982). The building, designed by the artist himself as a studio in the 1930s, is worth visiting for its fascinating architectural domes and open light source – an ode to the artist’s admiration for Bauhaus style. The statues to be found inside and outside in the garden are a statement to the artist’s conviction that sculpture should be for the public. The sculptor’s work is exhibited along with a rotating series of contemporary artists.
Ásmundursafn, Sígtún, 105 Reykjavík + 354 411 6430
Located by the old harbor in Reyjkavík and opened in 2004 in a building formerly used for fish freezing, the Maritime museum features an exhibition onboard the Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn, the oldest ship in the Coast Guard’s fleet. As the fishing industry has been a foundation of Icelandic economics, the museum aims to reflect this with artifacts and exhibitions about this entwined connection between Iceland and the Maritime.
Reykjavík Maritime Museum, Grandagarður 8, 101 Reykjavík +354 571 0960
The first exhibition space focusing solely on visual arts to open outside of Reykjavík, the Akureyri Art Museum is one of the main cultural centers in the North. Emphasis is on supporting and promoting visual arts in Akureyri and on art appreciation. You can see a variety of both established and emerging artists from Iceland and abroad.
Akureyri Art Museum, Kaupvangstræti 12, 600 Akureyri +354 461 2610
Þjóðminjasafnið is located next to the University of Iceland. With more than 2,000 artifacts collected from around the country, the National Museum of Iceland shows a fascinating display of history, representing the earliest cultures as well as contemporary culture. The museum features a door dating back to the 12th century, which represents Icelandic sagas and is the only medieval Icelandic carved door.
This is the original home of the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, who was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Gljúfrasteinn is located in the picturesque countryside of Mosfellsdalur, East of Reykjavík and close to the author’s childhood home. Preserved in its original state, the house displays an eccentric array of furniture and paintings that reflect the character of the author and his family. Laxness was a prolific author of 62 books in 68 years and helped to strengthen the Icelandic literature by reclaiming the epic narrative tradition.
Gljúfrasteinn, 271 Mossfellsbær +354 586 8066
Located in the seaside village of Reykjanesbær, the Viking World Museum features exhibitions each focusing on a different aspect of Viking heritage, including Norse mythology and archaeological findings. The museum also holds the ship Íslendingur, which was based on a model of a 9th-century Viking ship. During the summertime, the Settlement Zoo opens on the museum’s grounds with calves and lambs.
Viking World Museum, Víkingarbraut 1, 260 Reykjanesbæ +354 422 2000