Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Museum Reviews....Skógasafn

Skógar is an area that I hesitate to call a village because it's more like a cluster of tourist services by a big waterfall. Some people live there in farms, but I think the majority of the population are workers at the hotels, museum, and restaurants.
Skógar is the Icelandic word for "forest", and the waterfall there is immensely popular. Like many of the waterfalls in Iceland, this one has a perpetual rainbow, and it's tall, geometric cascade makes it one of the more beautiful of the easily accessible waterfalls in the south. It's impossible to miss it while driving on the main road, and most drivers stop there for a few minutes to get a nice snapshot.

For the more adventurous, Skógar is also the starting point for a popular hike to Þórsmörk. Climb the intimidating staircase to the top of the falls, go over the fence, and follow the path by the river. For about 27km, you can get a good sampling of every type of landscape in Iceland; Surging glacial rivers with impossibly tall prehistoric-looking waterfalls, jagged lava fields, snow, slush and absolute silence at the point where the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull shake icy hands, steaming vents left over from the 2010 eruption, marshland, forest, and lush valleys...to name a few things.

It's pretty intense. But maybe I'll post about it later, since I never did get around to writing about that particular adventure.

Skógar is, of course, home to a museum called Skógasafn. ("Safn" is the Icelandic word for "collection" and is often tacked onto the end of words to describe it as a museum, but it can also be used to describe any type of collection. For example, the word for "library" is "bókasafn", or a "book collection". If you're concerned with pronunciation, the "fn" combination makes a "p" sound. Saying "sap" like from a tree is pretty close.)
Skógasafn is the result of a labor of love by a gentleman named Þórður Tómasson, who has been collecting objects in the area for about sixty years. He's written several history books, as well, which you can purchase at the museum, but they are pretty useless if you don't understand Icelandic.
Entrance fee is 1250ISK for adults, and 1000ISK for students and seniors. Children from 12-15 are 500ISK, and under 12 are free. This includes the transportation museum and settlement area.
If you're lucky, you will be greeted by a young woman named Emma, who gives informative tours of the museum. There are some highlighted pieces, such as the first Bible printed in Icelandic, textiles for the wealthy, a small fishing boat, a terrifyingly large and effective mouse trap, and articles of daily life such as clothing and farm tools. Most of the tour touches on objects that you might otherwise overlook, so if you see a tour group, join up and listen in.
Þórður will also play a spooky rendition of "Clemintine" on a dulcimer-like instrument, and show you the old way to spin wool.

The tour is only about twenty minutes long, and it's a snapshot rush-through that barely touches on what the museum has to offer. It's unfortunate that most people are shuttled immediately out the door and onto other things, because it's easy to spend at least an hour or two inside browsing around. This is especially true for photographers who like to get design-y type shots of little details, patterns, or interesting shapes.
There are a several rooms in the main building that you can explore on your own. Every spare inch of wall space is utilized for display. Glass cases are full of unexplained objects, ranging from small bones to mysterious tools that you may or may not recognize. (Such as a blood lancet left over from the Black Plague era). Or check out the case holding objects used for various spells, like a swan bone used as a straw for a baby to drink his first milk from.
It's interesting to see the ingenuity of the Icelandic people. Since they did mostly without the influence of the rest of the world until the 1940s, they used what meager resources were available, and anything that washed up on the beach was potentially a very valuable addition to the home. Whale bones were used as buckets or window frames. A sheep bladder was used as a barometer. Driftwood was precious stuff, and intricate prayers and poems were carved onto large slats to be used for bed-boards.

There's also an upstairs where you can see a room full of spinning wheels and look down on the fishing boat for a fantastic view. Downstairs is the natural history portion, plus a few other rooms filled with random objects and looking more like unsorted storage. In the biology department, you can make close-up observations on Iceland's birds and mammals, from the inside and out. Everything is well-labeled down here, but it's helpful to have at least some grasp on the Icelandic language to be able to figure it all out.
If you venture back into the furthest corner, there are pull-out trays of insects and books of pressed plants (these are unlabeled).
Depending on your tastes, this is the most interesting area, since there's no explanation for anything, and it feels a bit like you wandered into some forgotten catacomb of the Smithsonian. The dim lighting adds to the effect.

When you've had your fill of the main museum, step outside and follow the paths through the little settlement area, where you can poke your head into different original buildings, including the iconic sod-roof buildings. There's also a church, a school, and examples of 1800s-style homes, like the very first wooden house in Iceland. All filled to the brim with items as if the inhabitants just stepped out for a moment.
This area can also take a good amount of time, too, depending on how voyeuristic you're feeling.

But wait! There's more! During summer hours, there is also a transportation museum, café, and gift shop open in the sleek, modern building next door to the folk museum. Cross a small bridge and you're there. The style is shockingly different, but the warehouse-y looking building is still just as chock-full of artifacts and curiosities as the main building.
During our visit, we saved the café for last, but it might be clever to stop and have a coffee to regroup before starting the tour through the transportation museum. I recommend having a kleina with your coffee. They are similar to a donut, slightly sweet and dry except for their oily sheen. But the café also offers sandwiches and soup at very good prices. Take note of the airplane hanging overhead, marked with the slogan "Mjólk er Góð!" (Milk is Good!)

A transportation museum may sound a little dull, but it is not to be missed. Even if technology and machines aren't your thing, it's easy for anyone to appreciate the beauty of the modified antique cars equipped like a tank with sleds and snow chains. You can also follow the advancement of modernization in Iceland, from the horseback riding postman, to telephone poles, and an area full of squawking CB radios, to the pride of Iceland; Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg (Search and Rescue Team).

Skógasafn is ideally a half-day activity, especially when you include the waterfall. Take your time when you visit, and try not to blow through it. It can be overwhelming, but even people who generally dislike museums will be entertained by all of the variety and mystery. Children will also enjoy running around and exploring the collection of houses. On a sunny day, the grassy areas are perfect for a picnic, too. The staff is also very knowledgeable and happy to answer any questions you may have.
This is my favorite museum in Iceland. I've visited it twice and each time found about a thousand more things to marvel at. It's a definite "must see".

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