Enter the lives of the seamen and fishermen at Reykjavík’s Maritime Museum, Víkin
The Call of the Wild
The sea has helped the Icelanders survive down through the centuries but it hasn’t been a free ride. Whilst shoals of fish swim the oceans surrounding this remote northern country, getting them to the dining table can be challenging, to say the least. Iceland’s fishing grounds have provided a rich harvest for generations of fishermen but often, the cost has been very high.
Until recent years, almost all international trade was conducted by sea. In today’s industrialised world, most people know little of the life of the seaman and the fisherman and their communities. Their fish
appears in the supermarkets in shrink-wrapped polystyrene packets. So it’s a special experience to enter into the world and lives of the fishermen and sailors - something that brings out a childhood wonder at being able to see, touch, feel and even dress like they did.
The Icelandic Maritime Museum is filled with the feeling of life with the sea. You can see how former generations struggled with the challenges and the boats they used. You imagine just what it must have been like to go out in a small open boat, rowing for your life when the skies filled with storms and the waves rose as high
as houses. It was a battle for survival that everyone took part in together - men, women and children. The communities pulled together and worked together to harvest the sea’s bounty. The young grew into responsibilities at an early age in this tough environment. Though the women generally took care of the hard work of processing and cleaning of the fish once they were landed, many’s the time that they would also go out on the boats to ensure their family’s livelihood and very survival.
With the modernisation and mechanisation of the fishing industry, conditions have improved considerably. Using real and reconstructed collections and dramatic video footage, the museum gives a very clear understanding of Iceland’s maritime history down through the years, covering each of its periods with its hands-on realistic exhibitions. Where else could you jump into a fisherman’s bed without upsetting someone?
It was not only the fishermen who braved the seas but also the Icelandic coastguard, part of whose role was to rescue ships that got in distress. For all those that were lost in the wild storms and winter blizzards, there were many more that were rescued. Just in the 46-year service of the Óðinn, the first modern Icelandic coastguard ship, over 200 ships were rescued and more crews were saved, often in extreme weather conditions. Its crew also took part in rescue operations when land transport was practically impossible, due to the weather. It carried doctors, nurses, supplies and rescue workers from Reykjavik in atrocious, violently stormy weather when an avalanche struck in the West Fjords, serving as a base of rescue operations while there.
When Iceland had to defend its fishing rights in each of the three Cod Wars, it was the Óðinn that fended off British frigates, trawlers and tug boats and enforced the fishing limits designed to protect fish stocks that were being severely depleted by foreign fishing boats.
Today, the Óðinn is a living museum that visitors can tour. It has the feeling of being lived in, with everything still in place from its times of active duty. This provides a very special opportunity to see what life is like on the high seas for adults and children alike. A DVD story of its history, available in the museum’s shop, makes very interesting viewing.
There’s nothing sterile about this museum. It’s an action museum where visitors get the feeling of becoming part of the seafaring community. This is heightened when meeting some of the former crew of the Óðinn who regularly get together in the museum’s cafeteria with wives (or husbands) and friends.
The museum is located at Grandi - just at the end of the road that runs along the harbour, and a 5-minute walk from the centre of town and it is open daily in winter, from Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 5pm, weekends from 1pm to 5pm. Summer opening times are from daily from 10am to 6pm, from 1st June–1st September.