Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin

I would like to describe the positive experiences of Icelanders on the subject of the restitution of cultural property.

Allow me to set the scene. In the 12th and 13th centuries there was a remarkable flowering of literature in Iceland. During this period a number of writers, not all of whom are known by name, wrote down the Icelandic family sagas which tell of the settlement of Iceland and of life in Northern Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. These writers also preserved for future generations much of the ancient lore and poetry of Viking culture, which up to that point had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

It is generally recognized that these works are not only important as the fount of Nordic literature but also are a significant strand in European art and literature. For example, many scholars look on the Icelandic family sagas as the first true novels in the European tradition. The texts of the Edda and the Volsung preserve a much older oral tradition and are the chief sources of our knowledge of ancient Germanic traditions and culture.

Thus the Icelandic manuscripts are both of major significance for European culture and central to Icelandic cultural heritage.

These ancient texts set down on calfskin survived in Iceland in private homes for many hundreds of years, read and re-read. However, the very fact that the manuscripts were so dispersed, together with the poverty of Icelandic society at the time, led to a number of Icelandic, Danish and Swedish scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries to search them out and preserve them for posterity. It should be remembered that at this time Iceland was under the Danish crown and the manuscripts were transferred to Copenhagen. The University of Copenhagen established a special manuscript institute in the 18th century named after the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon.

When Iceland became a sovereign state in 1918 in Union with the King of Denmark and an independent republic in 1944 many were of the opinion that the manuscripts should be returned to Iceland. Indeed, such discussions had started during the 19th century with the strengthening of nationalism. The decision was not an easy one for Denmark. Never the less, it was decided, after complex negotiations, that the bulk of the manuscripts, including the most important, should be returned and this was completed in the mid-1980s. Those manuscripts which were of most significance for Iceland were to be kept at the Arni Magnusson Institute in Reykjavik, and the remainder at the sister institution in Copenhagen. It was agreed that copies of all manuscripts should be available in both places.

The generosity exhibited by Denmark in this matter has, needless to say, had a very positive and lasting impact on Danish-Icelandic relations. Contacts continue on these matters, and most recently this summer Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen handed over to Prime Minister Davið Oddsson the original constitution of Iceland from 1874 to be kept in the national Archives. In return the Danes received various documents from the period 1904-1918, when Iceland had been under so-called home rule.

Denmark's progressive and generous approach in these matters has not been limited to Iceland. For example, a few years back, Denmark returned one of the Faeroe Islands' most treasured cultural artifacts, the Kirkjubæjar Chair.

I offer this short saga, with a happy ending, to illustrate that the return of cultural property, even many centuries after it was removed from its country of origin, does credit to all involved and can create a new beginning for friendly cultural relations. To return such artifacts is a powerful expression of respect for the cultural heritage of the country of origin, as well as being a vote of confidence in that country as a worthy repository of cultural artifacts which may well have much wider significance.


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