This sizable museum condenses Iceland’s entire history and culture into one digestible bite. More than 2,000 artifacts from various parts of the country are on display, including the Valþjófsstaður door, a Romanesque-style church door featuring elaborate medieval engravings depicting scenes from the legendary 12th-century knight’s tale Le Chevalier au Lion. The permanent “Making of a Nation” exhibit selects specific figures, objects, and vignettes to represent stages and themes of Icelandic history: A charming, old instant-photo booth, for example, signals the onset of modernity. The exhibit begins with a pagan burial site and ends with a traditional Icelandic dress refashioned by contemporary artist Ásdís Elva Pétursdóttir in transparent plastic.
The ground floor houses the free National Gallery of Photography, which, in keeping with the exhibit upstairs, features the Iceland of yore. The cafe on the ground floor is best for morning or afternoon tea, with little for lunch. The museum shop has more interesting souvenirs than many of the bigger tourist shops.