With Christmas just around the corner let me start by wishing you all good tidings!
This post is special because it marks the finale of Museum of the Month. I’ve loved all the visits I’ve taken to various museums around the world and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them too. When I began this series last January I had no idea where I’d end up but fast-forward 12 months and we’re at the Shark Museum in Iceland. I think it’s an interesting museum to finish up on, and it captures the essence of why I decided to do this series: to rebuff the notion that museums are boring!
This museum is not like a museum at all. First of all it is nestled deep inside a spectacular landscape of lava fields not far from the fishing village of Stykkishólmur so it’s worth going for the drive alone.
Check out the awesome sign for the Shark Museum
It’s also worth mentioning that Stykkishólmur was featured in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where bizarrely it was masquerading as Greenland! Then there is the arrangement of the Shark Museum which is unlike any ordinary museum – the arrangement being that there is no particular arrangement. You look at something and you’re left wondering if it’s actually part of the display or whether it’s just a bit of clutter that’s been pulled out from a desk drawer – the closest thing that describes the overall appearance of the Shark Museum is a random man’s garage. Later I would learn it’s a farm which is still functioning today.
I’m not really selling it, am I? Or maybe I am.
Its randomness and shabby appearance is a huge part of its charm. It feels homely, and nothing feels more homely to me than being greeted by a dog somewhere new. Yes, a dog at the museum! (Remember it’s also a farm so a dog really is nothing to be surprised about, but it didn’t stop me going all high-pitched and goo-goo eyed!). I was greeted with a sharp bark but as I drew closer it rolled onto the floor and started wriggling around on its back so I took the opportunity to give it a good belly scratch whilst I could. By now I didn’t even care about the museum, I could have stayed outside playing with this gorgeous Icelandic sheepdog all day.
Prising myself away from man’s best friend, I walked into the museum and lo and behold what did I find? More furry creatures in the form of two cats mooching around the place. Again, my attention was diverted in favour of animal petting.
I was soon greeted by a jovial looking old man with thick arched eyebrows and red cheeks. He beckoned me into the main museum through hand motions waving back and fourth, it was then that I realised he couldn’t speak any English so we communicated with enthusiastic smiles, head nods and gestures. The museum is owned by his son but he wasn’t there so I was in the care of his father who I’m going to call grandpa because it sounds better than ‘old man’.
The room is filled with an eclectic mix of fishing tools, bones, dried shark skins, as well as taxidermy relating mostly to Arctic birdlife. I want to say now that sharks are not specifically hunted, it so happens that some might get caught in the net when other fish are being sourced.
See what I mean about it being more like a garage?
Grandpa put on a short video for us to watch which detailed the process involved in making fermented Greenland shark (also known as hákarl or rotten shark). Interestingly, I learned the drying process takes 4-5 months and also if eaten fresh it is poisonous!! The fermentation significantly reduces bacteria and rids it of ammonia. It hardly sounds appetising does it? But many Icelanders would disagree because it’s actually considered a delicacy. Other interesting facts about the Greenland Shark is that it’s not known to have any known predators, and one such shark was discovered with a partial polar bear leg in its stomach!!
After the video Grandpa ushered me over to a table and pointed to a plastic container and then pointed to his mouth. Whatever was in there he was inviting me to eat it. You don’t need me to tell you what it was: diced up samples of hákarl. The thing is, I stopped eating meat a year ago and whilst I still eat fish, and even though I know shark isn’t technically meat, I still felt hesitant about eating it. Even now, and probably more so now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t feel great about it.
Grandpa was smiling at me as I took a small chunk of it and gingerly placed it into my mouth. I’m not one to usually hide my expressions, but even had I tried I doubt I would have been able to disguise the grimace that unfolded as soon as it hit my taste buds. He started to laugh and patted me on the back. It’s difficult to describe what it’s like but if you read the Wikipedia page for hákarl you will discover that the mere fact I managed to swallow is quite the achievement!
But cooler than my ability to swallow rotten shark is grandpa’s appearance on National Geographic’s exploration of the World’s Most Unusual Foods:
Once I had looked around the museum (which is just one large room) it was time to visit the drying shed around the back of the farm – this is something you cannot miss! Not only is it a slice into traditional Icelandic culture but you get to experience the smell. If you think it tastes bad then wait until you smell it in its full rotten glory!
Additional Information about Bjarnarhofn
How to get there: Approx. 20 minutes drive west from Stykkishólmur to Grundarfjörður
Admission fee: 900 ISK
Opening times: 09.00 – 18.00 (in the summer should close at 20.00 but check their website beforehand)