Fish & folk – 150 years of fisheries
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The exhibition Fish & folk – 150 years of fisheries at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum is about the history of the Icelandic fisheries, from the time when rowing boats gave way to large fishing vessels in the late 19th century, through to the 21st century. This rich history is told from the perspective of Iceland’s biggest fishing port, Reykjavík. The Maritime Museum’s setting is an appropriate one, as the building once housed a flourishing fish factory.
The value of fish to the Icelandic nation cannot be overstated. Over the centuries fish has been a staple of the Icelandic diet, and one of the nation’s most important exports. The Fish & Folk exhibition is built around the central character of this history: the fish itself. The fish is followed from the ocean, into the net, on board the boat, onto dry land and to its final destination – the plate.
The ambitious exhibition design has been handled by Amsterdam-based Kossmann.dejong. The ambiance is inspired by that of a fish processing and freezing plant, with tiled walls, tubs and plastic pallets. Diverse objects in the Reykjavík City Museum collections have an important role in the exhibition. They are of all shapes and sizes, from the smallest hook and fish tag, to massive mechanised fish skinners and herring brailers.
Rich visuals, both photographs and film, create a vibrant mood in the exhibition and deepen the visitor experience. It is possible to watch and listen to interviews with experts – mariners, marine biologists and fish factory workers – and old records from the fisheries in earlier times are also included. A range of interactive screens and games encourage participation, and various unusual features capture the attention and imagination, such as an enormous tower of dried saltfish and a tub full of less-desirable curiosities fished from the sea: plastic and other waste.
The exhibition is intended to entertain and educate, and to be equally of interest to those familiar with the fisheries and their history, and those who have no experience of the sea.
Visitors enter the exhibition on the lower floor of the Maritime Museum, where a silent film on a huge screen projects images of fish and people. The route continues up the stairs to the upper floor of the Museum. The wall tiles lining the staircase are printed with the poem “Ode to the Codfish” – written by Hannes Hafstein in praise of this finny “hero” of Iceland’s campaign for independence. At the head of the staircase is a mural of drawings by Jón Baldur Hlíðberg of Icelandic fish, with their names in Icelandic, English and Latin.
The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the ocean, the realm of fish and other sea creatures. The global system of oceanic currents is featured, and also the conditions that make the waters around Iceland some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Two films on large screens show oceanic life, above and below the surface. On two interactive screens, visitors can learn about different species fished commercially off Iceland, and explore their appearance and way of life, and their role in Iceland’s fisheries, history and culture. Marine and fish research around Iceland is described, and items connected to Iceland’s pioneering marine biologist Bjarni Sæmundsson are displayed. Visitors can discover how to determine the age of a fish using a microscope and learn about the marine food chain in a computer game called “Who eats whom?” Emphasis is placed on the importance of sustainable utilisation of natural resources in the ocean and responsible stewardship.
The next section of the exhibition is about navigation and fish finding. The development of navigation systems is shown with interviews and diverse objects, from compasses and sextants, sounding lines and primitive logs, to echo sounders, radio compasses, Loran and satellite navigation equipment. The principles of maritime navigation are explained on a large board. On another wall is shown one of the prayers recited by fishermen of old before they set out to sea: Preserve us from hidden rocks and surf, harmful fish and pirates.
Next, visitors enter the exhibition section that is about fishing vessels. Representing the rowing boat era is the Farsæll, a clinker-built boat in the Faxaflói style. Rowing-boat fisheries in Reykjavík peaked between 1870 and 1890. Iceland’s “age of sail” began then, and ketches and other decked sailing vessels made it possible to sail to more distant fishing grounds, returning to land with bigger catches than previously known. Items on display include rigging and knots, and fisheries pioneers Geir Zoëga and Ellert Schram are introduced. Shortly after 1900, motorisation of the Icelandic fisheries began, and Icelanders started to fish with bottom trawls. Reykjavík became a trawler port, and the rise of trawler fisheries was closely connected to the rapid growth of Iceland’s capital in the early 20th century. A ship propeller and steering gear, trawl clock and lights are examples of display items connected to the motorisation of the Reykjavík fisheries and the trawler revolution.
The evolution of ship types, from the start of motorisation and into the 21st century, is presented in a long exhibition case containing many beautiful models of boats and ships: side trawlers and stern trawlers, steam and diesel trawlers, herring boats and longliners, multifunction ships and freezer-trawlers.
The next exhibition area is about fishing; the tackle and methods, and how fishing has evolved. There are displays about handline, longline, seine and trawl fishing and other methods of catching fish, explained through diagrams and diverse display items. Older fishing equipment made of natural materials, such as wooden net floats and stone sinkers with carved grooves, is displayed along with modern equipment such as colourful artificial bait and electric jig winches.
Next is a display about the seafaring community on land and at sea. Life on board is the subject of an entertaining display where visitors can listen to recordings connected to various items in the display case. Which narrative is connected to a bottle of “Black Death” aquavit? And what about a radio, or an old book on marital sex? A variety of mariners’ equipment is displayed – knives, needles and gaffs – and visitors see how seamen’s waterproofs have changed, from the leather oilskins of the rowing-boat era to today’s colourful manmade materials. And visitors can try on waterproofs and pose for a photograph. Seamanship in Icelandic culture is also illustrated, in art and popular music, and in the idioms and proverbs that many people may not realise originated in seamanship.
Reykjavík Harbour is an integral part of the history told in the exhibition. The harbour’s history is recounted through objects such as diving gear used in the 1913–1917 harbour construction, and the popular sheepskin-lined coats worn by many harbour workers of old. In a specially designed game, visitors can try their hand with lifting-gear to stack fish tubs as fast as possible.
At the heart of this part of the exhibition is the photo “tree”. Visitors can sit down and trace their way through a multitude of photographs from the Reykjavík Museum of Photography which relate in one way or another to the harbour or harbour work. The many images in the photo tree comprise three parts from three periods. The first, A harbour at last, covers the early years and the harbour construction period, ending just after World War I. Unique pictures of the growing port of Reykjavík around 1900 can be seen, with harbour work from that period when cargo was loaded and unloaded by hand, and men and women struggled up the jetties with coal sacks on their backs. The second part of the photo tree is The year of the Heron, referring to the coal crane affectionately known as the Heron, which was the emblem of the harbour for decades. The photographs show the bustling daily life of the harbour, with fisheries, freight, and passengers boarding, bound for other parts of Iceland or the wider world. The final part of the photo tree, Fish and travel, covers the period from about 1960 into the 21st century. The pictures show the continuous process of land reclamation and construction that has taken place at Reykjavík Harbour, and also the changes to the nature of harbour work with the advent of containers, pallets and lifting equipment.
Reykjavík’s growing fisheries sector in the 20th century called for a variety of land-based services. The next section of the exhibitions is about these industries: Boat building, sail making, fishing gear and barrel making. Visitors can enter an artisan world that now belongs to the past, with its curious tools, many of which have mysterious names. Why did a cooper have so many planes? What are dividers, caulking, a cooper’s adze, hoop driver, sailmaker’s palm and a fid? How was a peening hammer used?
An enclosed exhibition space holds a display about the dramatic history of maritime safety and accidents at sea. The history of marine accident prevention training in Iceland is related, including a description of the globally unique system of mandatory reporting of vessel location, and objects such as a bailer, fish oil dispenser, life vest, and Markus Net are displayed. Four fateful maritime disasters are described and interesting items relating to them are displayed. They include cutting gear that saved the Þorkell Máni in the infamous Newfoundland storm, when ice built up dangerously on the superstructure and the heavy davits from which the life boats hung were cut away and jettisoned.
In the centre of the space is an electronic database, specially commissioned for the exhibition, which holds information about all Icelanders who have perished at sea in 1900–2017. This is both a memorial to their lives and a reminder of the dangers that have always accompanied seamanship close to the Arctic Circle. This part of the exhibition will no doubt touch many hearts.
On a nearby pallet, an impressive historic object can be seen: trawl-wire cutters used in the “Cod Wars” fought between Iceland and the UK in the late 20th century. Text and photographs describe events concerned with fishing limits and fisheries policy in Iceland’s waters since the 19th century, both disputes with other nations about the utilisation of fish stocks off Iceland and internal disputes within Iceland about division of this natural resource. Visitors who want to learn more about the subject can go outside to explore Coast Guard vessel Óðinn, a very popular part of the Maritime Museum, which is moored at the adjacent dock.
Fish processing can be seen all around the exhibition. The next section focuses on the different methods of preserving fish, and their history in Iceland: drying, salting, icing, freezing, rendering and canning. A tall tower of dried saltfish reminds us of the importance of this product which was once Iceland’s most valuable export commodity, and which glittered palely on drying grounds all over Reykjavík. Essential fish working tools, such as knife and steel, are displayed, including knives from the Reykjavík Municipal Fisheries (BÚR) which were once located in this very building, now occupied by the Maritime Museum. Large items such as mechanical fish skinners and filleters are also displayed; these revolutionised fish processing after the mid-20th century.
The next part of the exhibition is about fish exports and sales. Iceland’s exports are shown in an innovative free-standing histogram made from fish tubs. Visitors can learn about the standards followed for quality control in fish processing, and how fresh fish is supposed to look and smell. A number of factors that can affect international trade are mentioned, and some of the goods that Iceland has imported in exchange for fish are displayed, including Prince Polo chocolate wafers from Poland, Czech cut-glass and Spanish wine.
Now visitors return to the lower floor of the museum. The Waste not, want not! display explores all the many side products that have been produced from fish and other marine resources, both now and in the past: everything from old traditional fish skin shoes, to modern fashion accessories, skin creams and dietary supplements. Attention is thus drawn to the importance of utilising marine resources responsibly – use everything, waste nothing.
At the end of the exhibition, the fish has reached the plate. Visitors have the opportunity to compile their own delicious fish recipes from a variety of ingredients, in a computer game called Bon appétit!