Iceland’s Museum of Natural History is set to get permanent housing after 130 years of waiting. The museum has signed a contract which will enable them to move the museum to Seltjarnarnes to a building that has been more than 20 years in the making. The plan is to open the museum in the spring of 2023.
130-year wait for a museum Building
While Iceland’s Museum of Natural History in its current form was founded in 2007, its history can be traced back to 1889 when the Icelandic society of Natural sciences was founded. One of the Society’s founding goals was to open a museum of natural history in Iceland. They started a collection and ran a museum for almost 60 years. In 1947, they donated the collection to the government along with funds intended to go towards building a permanent home for a museum of natural history. This became the foundation for the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, an agency of the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, but the building never saw the light of day. The collection was on display in rented buildings that weren’t up to modern standards for museums. In 2007, a new institution was founded to take care of the collection dating back to 1889, a museum, separate from the government agency. Even then, it consisted of offices and storage space, with no exhibition space. Its collection has never had a permanent residence although a part of its collection is on display in the exhibition The Water in Icelandic Nature in Perlan.
A building 20 years in the making
Now, the museum has signed a contract with authorities allowing them to use a building in Seltjarnarnes, close to Grótta. Originally built to house a medical museum, the building’s been empty since its exterior was finished in 2007. The building’s story goes back a long time as well. Architects Ásdís Helga Ágústsdóttir and Sólveig Berg’ design won an open design contest for a medical museum in Setljarnares in 1997. Winning the contest allowed them to start their own architect firm, now more than 20 years old, but in all that time, the building remained unfinished. Cost of construction turned out to be higher than anticipated, and the municipality and government disagreed over which party should shoulder the added costs. For years, the building stood empty and unused, although the municipality at one point advertised it for sale on the open market. “I couldn’t even walk past it anymore,” says Ásdís, one of the building’s architects. “It was so hard to see it unfinished for all these years.”
While the medical museum has yet to open, the building will now be completed and altered slightly to fit the needs of the Natural History Museum. The State Treasury made a deal with the municipality of Seltjarnarnes to take over the building, a part of an investment program to combat the economic effects of the global pandemic. Ásdís is optimistic that the building will suit the needs of the new museum. “Even if the building was intended to house a medical museum, we designed it to complement the nature that surrounds it. It’s a low building that fits perfectly in the low, flat landscape and the sea line beyond it, enveloped by the soft hill that surrounds it. It’s an organic creation, with soft curves intended to indicate the curves of the human body, but that will suit the museum of natural history just as well.”
Even though the building is low, there’s more to it than the eye registers at first. “Underneath the surface is a spacious level with plenty of height, perfect for exhibitions,” Ásdís says. The low roof also offers beautiful views of the nature that surrounds it, with specially designed windbreakers that will provide a break from the Seltjarnarnes winds. “We spent a lot of time figuring out the wind direction patterns so that people will be able to enjoy the view in perfect stillness,” says Ásdís, who’s been waiting more than twenty years to see her firm’s first creation completed.
A suitable home
Now, this one of Iceland’s principal museum will finally get a satisfactory home. “We’ve waited for a long time, 130 years,” stated Hilmar L. Malmquist, Director of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History. “We’ve never had our own building, not for exhibitions, or any of our other work so this is long-awaited. The location is excellent, this close to the nature, the ocean, Bakkatjörn lake and signs of human habitation. It will be fascinating to work with.”
The building has high ceilings and plenty of space, but Hilmar already has eyes on expanding. “It will do to start with; it’s 1,360 sqm (14,639 sq ft). But the nation is growing, and we’ll have plenty of tourists once the pandemic has passed, so it’s foreseeable that we will have to expand relatively soon. The blueprints already exist,” said Hilmar.
In addition to the building, the museum will receive a budget of 1.2-1.3 billion ISK to complete it and adapt it to their needs. “It’s been empty for years and needs upkeep. But that budget also includes foundational expenses for our permanent exhibition.” Hilmar has set an ambitious timeline for the museum’s opening: “We’ll have it ready in a relatively short time. We plan to get to work quickly and hopefully we’ll be able to move our operations here and open in spring of 2023,” Hilmar stated.