Iceland's unlimited sources

Bjorn Bjarnason

Minister of Culture and Education, Iceland

In today's world, where the speed of communications and ease of travelling increases steadily and the number of travellers likewise, competition to attract travellers and trade has become international; the world is one market. In response to this situation, countries have, for instance, chosen to emphasise their unique characteristics and present themselves simply and definitively - often using a few well chosen slogans that are intended to focus on the characteristics of the land and its people. In the case of Iceland, it is the nation's cultural heritage which first comes to mind, its ancient literature written during the Middle Ages which has no parallel in the cultural history of Europe. In more recent times, Iceland has also been noted for the high level of general education, which is manifest in the high standard of living, among the highest in the world, and the high technological level of the country's industries and services. Finally, the purity and lack of pollution evident both in the country and its products has been increasingly emphasised in national promotion.

Iceland's position among the nations of the world is unique in a number of respects. An island country, its inhabitants are ethnically as well as politically a single nation with a common history, culture and language. Icelanders can follow the course of their history from its earliest beginnings some 1,100 years ago when immigrants from Scandinavia and the British Isles settled in the country which appears to have been unpopulated at that time. The story of their settlement was recorded during the time of flourishing historiography in the 12 and 13th centuries. Other writings dating from this time include histories of the Norwegian kings, the Eddic poems and other great works of literature besides the Icelandic Sagas. Ever since, literary works have figured highly in the lives and activities of Icelanders, and formed the core of national consciousness. The literary heritage has also no doubt been one of the reasons for the higher general level of literacy in Iceland than in most other areas of the world for centuries.

Interest among Icelanders in the Icelandic language also traces its roots to the same source. Icelandic developed from the same origins as did the languages of Scandinavia, but in Iceland the language has been preserved with only slight alteration for a thousand years. Modern-day Icelanders can thus read ancient Icelandic literature as it was written in the original language. Since the languages of the world are steadily decreasing in number, there is good reason for a small nation such as Iceland consciously to support its language not least because it preserves world literature of major significance.

Cultural activities are extremely varied and energetic in Iceland, a fact which is often noticed with surprise by visitors from abroad. What is more unique about this culture is the very widespread and active participation of the general public, both as participants in and audience at cultural events. An example of this are attendance figures at theatrical productions, which are the equivalent of 80 per cent of the population attending the theatre at least once a year, and survey results in which about 60 per cent of Icelanders said they visit an art exhibition occasionally. Investigations have revealed that about one-quarter of the nation is active in the sphere of music, either as a student in a music school, singer in a choir, player of a musical instrument in an amateur ensemble, music teacher or other professional. Participation of Icelanders in artistic and cultural life would appear to depend little on the location of their residence, their level of education or profession, and thus contributes to the cultural homogeneity of the nation.

Iceland lies directly on the route from Europe to North America and is in no way isolated in cultural respects. Icelandic art students are also very keen on studying at schools abroad as well as at home, to widen their horizons, and Icelandic artists are active participants in international art events. Foreign artists are also frequent visitors, especially in connection with the international Festivals of the Arts, which are held at regular intervals.

In only a very short time, Iceland changed from a simply society of farmers and fishermen to a modern, high-technology nation. Fortunately the country's inhabitants were very conscious of the need to preserve the heritage of times past, as is evident in the numerous museums located throughout the country. In a number of locations structures from the Middle Ages have been recreated and for those interested in ancient literature tours are arranged to the actual sites where the events occurred. The parliamentary assembly of Iceland, the Althing, which is considered to be among the oldest legislative assemblies in the world, met in the era of the mediaeval commonwealth at Thingvellir in a strikingly picturesque location not far from the capital city of Reykjavik. The site is a favourite with both Icelanders and visitors from abroad, who can picture for themselves the surroundings in which the assembly was established over 1,000 years ago.

The travel industry is intended primarily to provide travellers with access to, and facilitate their enjoyment of, the various resources of the country - its natural environment, art and culture. The Icelandic Government recently presented a policy paper on the travel industry, placing emphasis on making the arts, cultural history and modern culture of Iceland better known to travellers. Icelanders are more than willing to share these unlimited sources with guests from abroad and thus provide them with a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the country and its people.