Undoubtedly, one of the loveliest and most novel museums I’ve ever visited, is the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður, in North Iceland. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before or since.
The Herring Era Museum is an experiential museum. Unlike traditional museums, you do not go into a boring room with four walls and some artefacts on display in glass cages. Instead, you are immersed into the world of the items on exhibition.
The museum is separated into five buildings, the very same buildings that were used for the purposes now on display.
For example, the factory building which had dorm rooms for the “herring girls”, who worked there in the summer, descaling, gutting and canning the fish, really was a factory.
The rooms in the upper floor, in which the girls lived while they worked, have been refurbished. You can enter the rooms and experience the space as they did. Every details is meticulously thought out and touched with a little bit of Icelandic humour.
The other exhibit I really loved was the one in the boathouse, which is home to a couple of Icelandic fishing boats. You can enter the boats, wonder around in them and feel the spaces out for yourself. It was really exciting being in a real fishing boat that had sailed in the arctic waters!
There was one boat in particular, the SK-33, which stood in the middle of the museum, that had an interior room you could enter. That was truly fascinating. The boat had a little antechamber on the deck level which you could enter to climb down into the living quarters below.
There was, quite surprisingly, a lot of stuff below. In addition to a number of simple beds, there was a cooking stove and storage cabinets.
The whole thing was very civilised. I suppose a fisherman or woman might need all the creature comforts one can get when out fishing in these cold, windy waters, and we know how cold it gets out there at sea because we had gone whale watching.
Wandering around the boats and the museum in general, you soon get a sense of how difficult life was back then for the inhabitants of the island. That said, anyone who is in the business of food gathering and processing, still doesn’t have it easy, despite the technological improvements. At the end of the day, if you are an Icelandic fisherman, you still have to get kitted out against the elements, and head out into the cold expanse of the ocean for a catch.
Herring were a great source of prosperity for Iceland and also many of the other Nordic countries. In the middle of the twentieth century, fishing technology allowed Icelandic fishermen to exploit rich waters that surrounded the country – and the fish they caught were used for many things.
No part of it was wasted, from their flesh, which could be eaten, their bones, skin and other parts, which were ground up for meal, and their oil. Everything that could be extracted from the fish was extracted.
Now, sadly, in 1969, the herring failed to appear. This was the consequence of overfishing. The once bustling Herring town of Siglufjörður soon lost its attraction. Today though, this town and its fascinating history, tucked safely in the fjords that surround it, draws lots of visitors who are interested in reliving the golden age of Icelandic fishing.