Inspiration – Icelandic Instructional Signs

There are a lot of beautiful ways to get yourself seriously injured in Iceland: volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, cliffs, and pieces of fermented shark on toast. I was lucky enough to experience almost all of them (not the shark, because ewww), and I was repeatedly surprised at how minimal and unobtrusive the caution and instructional signs that accompanied these places were.

Take this fumarole – an opening in the Earth’s crust emitting steam and poisonous gases:


In the United States there’d be a fence and seven warning signs and a ranger. In Iceland there was nothing, so you could do this and slowly feel the rubber soles of your shoes melting away:


But there should have been a warning sign telling you how…interesting…the wind will make your hair look. Oy.

Here are some of the other signs I saw:




This doesn’t mean that no one in Iceland gets hurt. Occasionally, people (cough…tourists) fall off cliffs and freeze in glacial lagoons. But the approach to policing behavior is different. In Iceland it’s assumed that you’re rational and responsible, and that you can follow directions without needing to be coddled. It’s basically up to you to prove that you’re not an idiot, which you do by not dying.

The museums in Iceland were similar – instructional signs were used when and where they were needed, but were minimal and in the background. It was assumed that visitors knew how to behave and that they would. And, as far as I could tell, most people did. Coming from a museum culture that’s so full of “Do Not…” signs, guards, cases, and alarms that you sometimes feel like a delinquent by association, I’m encouraged when I see places that have found other ways to strike a balance between preservation, communication, and experience. Discussions on how to effectively convey rules to visitors are on-going, and discrete signs won’t always be appropriate. But I’m interested in how museums can develop a culture of mutual respect, for the visitors and the objects, and how instructional signs can contribute to that.

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