An exhibition devoted to the life and impact of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former President of Iceland, will open in the old Telegraph Station on Suðurgata on 1 December. Work is currently underway renovating the building and setting up the exhibition. The exhibition, suitable for all ages, will educate visitors about the wide-ranging impact that Vigdís has had in the areas of equality, environmentalism, world peace and language, both in Iceland and abroad.
A memorandum of understanding between the government and the University of Iceland was signed at an event held in the UI Ceremonial Hall on 17 June 2021 to mark the 110th anniversary of the foundation of the University. Last year, the University of Iceland and Vigdís agreed that Vigdís would donate several artefacts from her presidency to the University and Vigdís International Centre, such as letters and documents, gifts from foreign heads of state, artwork, items of clothing and other objects from her private collection. Since then, preparations for the exhibition have been in full swing under the leadership of Sigrún Alba Sigurðardóttir, cultural scholar and curator at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and her daughter, Ástríður Magnúsdóttir, at the signing of the agreement on donation of Vigdís' possessions to the exhibition.
Lend me wings
The exhibition is entitled "Lend me wings: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, life and impact. The goal of the exhibition is to highlight the influence Vigdís Finnbogadóttir had on both Iceland and the wider world and the issues to which she has devoted her life, both as the President of Iceland and later as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages. "There is a particular focus on her work for equality, the environment, world peace, languages and culture and the exhibition also explores how public discourse shaped Vigdís' positions and priorities and how she influenced and even changed that discourse," says Sigrún Alba.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by the Icelandic poet, Hulda. "We chose it to reflect how, through her encouragement, positivity and example, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has inspired so many people – women and others – to take action and make their dreams come true. Vigdís was young herself when she left home and started working towards her goals, learning from her experiences and the challenges she faced along the way. She has been a role model for many people. With her emphasis on human rights, peace, environmental protection, culture, and languages, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has had a profound influence on both Iceland and the wider world, not to mention her impact on matters of equality," adds Sigrún Alba.
Close collaboration with the Vigdís International Centre
The exhibition will be closely linked with the work of the Vigdís International Centre, which is housed in the building next door to the Telegraph Station: Veröld - House of Vigdís. The Vigdís International Centre operates under the auspices of UNESCO and the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages at the University of Iceland. "The primary aims of the Vigdís International Centre are to promote multilingualism in order to increase understanding, communication and respect between cultures and nations and to support research into native languages in a human rights context. Since 1999, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir has been a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages. The role involves raising awareness of the importance of languages for cultural diversity and preserving endangered languages," explains Ann-Sofie Nielsen Gremaud, chair of the board of the Vigdís International Centre.
Vigdís was elected President of Iceland in 1980 and served in that office for 16 years. IMAGE/Getty Images
Why was Vigdís elected President?
The 1980 Icelandic presidential election attracted global attention when Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first woman in the world to be democratically elected head of state. "The exhibition will seek to answer the question of why Vigdís won that election. What did she have to offer? What was the reaction when she announced her candidacy? And what impact did her victory have on younger generations and the debate on equality, both in Iceland and abroad?" says Sigrún Alba.
She believes that much of the explanation can be found in Vigdís' childhood, education, personality and her work as a teacher, translator, tour guide and theatre director. "Vigdís wasn't afraid to stand up and speak candidly about subjects that had been considered taboo, such as cancer, adoption and various other topics that women were generally not supposed to talk about or have an opinion on," says Sigrún Alba, explaining that these ideas are addressed specifically in the exhibition.
Work is currently underway renovating the building and setting up the exhibition. "People living in Iceland, as well as tourists or short-term residents studying or working here. The exhibition is also designed to appeal to different age groups and we will be producing teaching material related to the exhibition for both compulsory school and upper secondary school students," says Sigrún Alba. image/Kristinn Ingvarsson
Furnishings that reflect Vigdís' interest in afforestation
Ann-Sofie explains that a huge amount of research has gone into preparing this exhibition and a wide range of sources have been consulted, both private and public. "The exhibition will endeavour to share the story of the life and times of Vigdís through a variety of sources: for example, personal possessions, photographs, private letters, and media coverage. The exhibition will also include videos and audio recordings that give a deeper insight into Vigdís' life and the impact of her work, as well as artwork and artefacts that Vigdís received as gifts and pieces created by Icelandic artists on the theme of Vigdís' life and passions. For example, we have work by the art group, the Icelandic Love Corporation, and the artists Guðjón Ketilsson, Anna Júlía Friðbjörnsdóttir and Valtýr Pétursson," explains Sigrún Alba.
She adds that the setting for the exhibition was inspired by the Icelandic landscape. "Unndór Egill Jónsson designed all the display tables and cabinets specifically for this exhibition and they were crafted from Icelandic birch wood from Vaglaskógur. We believe these furnishings will create an interesting link with Vigdís' interest in afforestation; she was a pioneer in her way when it came to afforestation and conservation," says Sigrún Alba.
Birna Geirfinnsdóttir and Arnar Freyr Guðmundsson at Studio Studio are responsible for all graphic design. The aim is to ensure that the appearance of the exhibition reflects Vigdís' personality, that it is stately, warm and international.
Vigdís received many messages of congratulations after she was elected President, including from the Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. IMAGE / Kristinn Ingvarsson
Honouring the history of the Telegraph Station
Preparations for the exhibition are in full swing in the Telegraph Station. The building, where Iceland first established wireless communications with the outside world, will now be given a new lease of life returning to its role as a venue for international communication.
"We have divided the Telegraph Station into three main spaces. The first, which we call the Blue Room, will introduce visitors to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and help them to understand how she became the world's first democratically elected female head of state. Visitors will then proceed to the Presidential Room, which explores Icelandic society in 1980 and Vigdís's presidential campaign and election in that context. There are certainly a lot of surprises there and we felt it was important to remind people of just how little progress had been made in the fight for gender equality at that time and how that was reflected in the debate and discussions about Vigdís' campaign. The South Room is the third part of the exhibition and focuses on Vigdís' passions and the causes she has fought for, both as the President of Iceland, as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Languages and in other ways," says Sigrún Alba, explaining that the connecting theme is international relations.
"Visitors will then return to the entrance, where there will be a little shop selling books and other mementos, as well as a small exhibition about the Telegraph Station itself, which was established in 1918. The Telegraph Station was vital for international communications in Iceland. In order to send and receive news and communicate with the outside world, it is essential to speak languages other than Icelandic. In view of this, it seems appropriate that the Telegraph Station should be opposite Veröld, which is home to the UI Faculty of Languages and Cultures, with Vigdísartorg square in between connecting these different worlds," says Sigrún Alba.
It is no mean feat to do justice to such a rich and eventful life as Vigdís' in an exhibition like this, but according to Sigrún Alba, who is highly experienced in exhibition management, it is important to work systematically with the chosen narrative and use different techniques to connect with different people. "It has been both challenging and rewarding and was a combined effort from many different people – exhibition managers, designers and other experts who have provided various advice on content, focuses, conservation of artefacts, and how to effectively share our message. Such a large exhibition as Lend me wings requires a lot of different people to work together. We would like to thank everyone who contributed, including staff at the National Museum, the National Gallery, the National Archives, the National Library, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Office of the President of Iceland – not forgetting the experts from the University of Iceland who we have consulted on manuscripts and the content of the exhibition," she says.
Letters that Vigdís wrote to her parents when she was studying in France will be on display in the Telegraph Station. IMAGE / Kristinn Ingvarsson
Complements the exhibition on language in Veröld – House of Vigdís
The exhibition will open 1 December and will be suitable for all ages. "People living in Iceland, as well as tourists or short-term residents studying or working here. The exhibition is also designed to appeal to different age groups and we will be producing teaching material related to the exhibition for both compulsory school and upper secondary school students," says Sigrún Alba.
Ann-Sofie agrees and adds that the exhibition will also serve as a venue for visits, outreach and events in synergy with the exhibition work in Veröld - House of Vigdís. "Lend me wings echoes the Living Language lab, particularly those parts of the exhibition that focus on languages. The Living Language lab is an exhibition on the languages of the world, how they have spread, how they can be protected and why they are important. It is an interactive experience for visitors, harnessing digital technology, and is especially designed for school groups. When Vigdís was young, she realised that there was a myriad of languages in the world and that every language allows us to think about the world, and relate to it, in a specific way. It is safe to say that the two exhibitions, Lend me wings and Living Language lab, complement each other and we hope that as many visitors as possible take the opportunity to visit both," concludes Ann-Sofie.