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A view of Seyðisfjörður. The paths of the landslides are clearly visible. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
In the week preceding Christmas 2020, a series of landslides caused by days of record-setting rain hit the small town of Seyðisfjörður in eastern Iceland. Fortunately, no one was hurt— the whole town had been preemptively evacuated. The landslides were the largest to have occurred in an inhabited area of Iceland. 39 houses were damaged and 13 buildings were completely destroyed. According to the Icelandic government, damages exceeded 7.8 million dollars. Crushed and buried in the flow of mud, several facilities owned by the Technical Museum of East Iceland (Tækniminjasafn Austurlands) were among the buildings destroyed.
The Technical Museum of East Iceland is a non-profit organization devoted to sharing the evolution of life in Seyðisfjörður—and Iceland more broadly—between approximately 1880 and 1960. The Museum spanned six buildings, including a historic machine shop and telegraph station. Its collection included objects and ephemera relating to mechanics, shipbuilding, commerce, architecture, and the advent of telecommunications in Iceland.
Seyðisfjörður was the node from which Iceland was first connected to the global telecommunications network. Operational in 1906, a 615 mile telegraph cable laid on the ocean floor connected Seyðisfjörður to the Faroe Islands and finally to Scotland. Soon, over-land lines spanning the entire breadth of the country linked Seyðisfjörður to Iceland's capitol, Reykjavik. Built in 1907, the machine shop now owned by the Technical Museum had one of the first hydroelectric generators in the country. Before the landslide, the Museum offered printmaking, bookbinding, carpentry, and blacksmithing workshops, often using tools and machines from the collection. The Museum also hosted community events and kept photos and historical records of every house in Seyðisfjörður.
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Olav standing in the warehouse’s main collection storage room. The plastic bins donated by the fish packing plant are visible in stacks on the left. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
When I arrived in Seyðisfjörður in June of 2021, excavators and dump trucks were still moving earth. For the people who live there, the effects of such a traumatic event were still very much felt. Immediately following the landslides, members of the community worked tirelessly with Zuhaitz Akizu, the Museum's director, to rescue as much of the collection as they could. Materials salvaged from the wreckage are being stored in a warehouse just outside of town. Small to medium-sized objects were collected in plastic bins donated by a local fish packing plant. The volume of the recovered objects meant the plastic bins were often stacked eight high in the warehouse. Large objects were placed on wooden pallets and stored on open shelving or on the floor at the base of the shelves. It was clear any work I could complete over the summer would be a drop in the ocean, but I was grateful to be there and eager to help in any way that I could.
One of my first tasks was to gain an understanding of the different climes inside the cavernous warehouse. After collecting temperature and humidity readings with a data logger, I sorted the large objects on pallets by material type and susceptibility to changes in humidity. Wooden objects like furniture were moved to areas where temperature and humidity are most stable. More resilient objects like ships' propellers and industrial machinery were moved to areas that underwent the most dramatic temperature and humidity swings. With limited floor space to navigate the pallet jack, the amount of planning needed to access a pallet three pallets deep, and the goal of arranging the pallets as space-efficiently as possible, this operation felt like a human-sized puzzle game. Over the course of my summer with the Museum, I continued to monitor the environmental conditions of the warehouse and conducted regular inspections of the stored collection.
The contents of a bag of type emptied into a box. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
One of the plastic bins in the warehouse contained metal letterpress type, scooped directly from the mud of the landslide into dozens of plastic ziplock bags. Some of the bags still contained wet earth. I learned from the Museum's director that because sets of type of the Icelandic alphabet—which has characters unique to Icelandic—are no longer made, they can be more valuable than printing presses. From exposure to moisture, a considerable amount of the lead alloy type had developed powdery white oxidation. This corrosion product was friable and for the most part not disfiguring to the crisp edges of the type. Luckily the plastic bin containing the type was easily accessible and I emptied the bags into plastic boxes to allow the type to dry. I then sorted the jumbled type through a series of increasingly refined filters; first by set, and then by individual characters within a set. I reconstructed eight sets that are largely complete and another fourteen that are fragmentary beyond use.
Once it was sorted and inventoried, I planned a treatment for cleaning the oxidized and dirty type. Scrubbing each piece individually with a brush was not an option because of the sheer amount. Based on my research, using an ultrasonic cleaner seemed to be the most efficient and effective way to clean the type in batches. After cleaning, I proposed applying an oil film to the type to prevent future oxidation. Because an ultrasonic cleaner could not be sourced from an Icelandic company, one was purchased from a company in England. Shipping internationally to Iceland is difficult, and even though the ultrasonic cleaner was purchased mid-way through my time in Seyðisfjörður, it unfortunately did not arrive by the time I had to leave.
Olav created inventory tables for the eight most complete sets of type. Physical versions of these tables were left with the sorted type and a digital file was given to the Museum's director. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
Símstöðin, the Technical Museum's primary exhibition space. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
While the Technical Museum's main exhibition space was thankfully untouched by the landslides, it was deemed to be in the “danger zone" of future landslides. The entire building, a historic house originally converted into a telegraph station, will be relocated away from the steep slopes of the fjord. Working first with students from the University of Iceland and then with the Museum's archivist, I helped set up shelves, converting a kitchen inside into a processing space where we packed and sorted collection objects in preparation for storage in the warehouse during the move.
The often messy, but incredibly enriching, work I did with the Technical Museum felt particularly “real" following a year of virtual interactions. I would like to thank Zuhaitz Akizu and everyone in Seyðisfjörður who welcomed me so warmly, as well as the generous funders who made my time in Seyðisfjörður possible in the first place. I am grateful to have been able to spend the summer doing meaningful work in a such a special setting.
The conditions that caused the landslides were likely the result of climate change. This disaster underscores the need for urgent action to cut our greenhouse emissions.
— Olav Bjornerud, WUDPAC Class of 2023
The collection processing space inside Símstöðin, formerly a kitchen. (Image: Olav Bjornerud)
Our thanks to the host institutions and to Conserv for helping our students expand their conservation understanding and experience.
The Technical Museum of East Iceland was established in 1984 as one of four specialized museums in the Eastfjords region. The museum also serves as a local heritage museum for the Seyðisfjörður area. The museum's main focus is the period from 1880-1950, including technical innovations in mechanics, electricity, communications, shipbuilding, commerce, and architecture. You can learn about the museum and the recovery efforts following the December 2020 landslide on the museum's website.
Conserv Solutions Inc. is a tech startup based in Birmingham, Alabama. Conserv is working to create a comprehensive platform for preventive conservation that involves integrating risk management for environment, pests, disasters, and other agents of deterioration into a single tool. The company started with the creation of wireless sensors for relative humidity, temperature, and light that feed into collections-specific data analytic tools. They are currently working on software for integrated pest management, leak detection monitoring, building management system (BMS) sensor integration, and energy usage integration for sustainability measures. Conserv is eager to partner with researchers and practitioners in our field to build the next generation of sensors and software for cultural heritage preservation. You can learn more about Conserv by visiting their website.