Herring Era Museum

14 06 2013

If a museum about herring sounds dull and faintly ridiculous, keep in mind that the herring trade was for Icelanders what the California Gold Rush was for Americans. At various times herring alone accounted for over a quarter of Iceland’s export income, and Siglufjörður was the country’s largest herring production center.  At one point Siglufjörður had 10,000 residents, now it is down to 1300.

The Herring Era Museum is Iceland’s largest maritime museum. This enormous, ambitious museum is spread across three buildings. The Boat House recreates the town’s bustling harbor of the 1950s, with many old fishing boats at the dock. Grána, a herring meal and oil factory of the 1930s shows how men and machines processed herring into meal and oil. The oldest museum building is Róaldsbrakki, built as a Norwegian herring station in 1907, it now includes an exhibition on herring salting in Iceland.

The old building has largely been left as it was when it housed dozens of girls working in the herring fishery. The old living quarters for the herring girls were reproduced and each of the tiny bunk-beds slept two (for a total of four!)

The old building has largely been left as it was when it housed dozens of girls working in the herring fishery. The old living quarters for the herring girls were reproduced and each of the tiny bunk-beds slept two (for a total of four!)

Iceland’s first herring processing plant was built in Siglufjördur in 1911, to be soon followed by bigger, better equipped facilities at all the country’s principal herring ports. The spread and scope of these factories was such that they are now recognized as marking the first arrival of large scale industry to Iceland.

Salted herring was to become a vital foodstuff for many European countries, particularly during the hungry days of the two world wars. Crucial export markets were Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Germany and the US.  When not salted for human consumption, herring was dispatched to reducing factories where herring oil and meal were extracted. The meal subsequently became a staple pet food across Europe, while the oil had a range of uses in the chemical industry, including the manufacturing of soap!

The herring girls sometimes do shows on how to clean and gut the herring. Back in the day, they were paid by the barrel and their hands were terribly worn.

The herring girls sometimes do shows on how to clean and gut the herring. Back in the day it was quick work as they were paid by the barrel. The work was backbreaking and their hands were terribly worn.

So crucial an asset was the herring catch that for many years it accounted for a staggering 25% of Iceland’s total export earnings, with the figure occasionally reaching 35%.

In 1969 the herring simply failed to show up. The responsibility for over exploiting the once great Norwegian-Icelandic herring stock clearly lies with the then biggest herring fishing nations: Norway, Iceland and Russia.  Iceland’s herring towns, indeed the country’s entire employment and economic sectors, suffered a severe blow with the disappearance of the herring. During the late 1960s, herring accounted for up to half of Iceland’s export income, and was crucial in powering the country’s dizzying economic growth.  The great herring adventure was over.

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