The National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands) was established on 24 February 1863, with Jón Árnason the first curator of the Icelandic collection, previously kept in Danish museums. The second curator, Sigurður Guðmundsson, advocated the creation of an antiquarian collection, and the museum was called the Antiquarian Collection until 1911.
Before settling at its present location, at Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, in 1950, it was housed in various Reykjavík attics, finally for forty years in the attic of the National Library building on Hverfisgata (Safnahúsið, now the Culture House, Þjóðmenningarhúsið).
A key object in the permanent exhibition is the Valþjófsstaður door, a celebrated carving depicting a version of the Lion-Knight legend where a knight slays a dragon, thus freeing a lion that becomes his companion.
Artefacts from settlement to the modern age fill the creative display spaces of Iceland's superb National Museum. Exhibits give an excellent overview of Iceland’s history and culture, and the free smartphone audio guide adds a wealth of detail. The strongest section describes the Settlement Era – including the rule of the chieftans and the introduction of Christianity – and features swords, drinking horns, silver hoards and a powerful bronze figure of Thor. The priceless 13th-century Valþjófsstaðir church door is carved with the story of a knight, his faithful lion and a passel of dragons.
Upstairs, collections span from 1600 to today and give a clear sense of how Iceland struggled under foreign rule and finally gained independence. Simple objects utilise every scrap of materials; check out the gaming pieces made from cod ear bones, and the wooden doll that doubled as a kitchen utensil.