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The Árni Magnússon collection

As a young man, the Icelander Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) travelled to Copenhagen to study and later became a professor at the University of Copenhagen. He travelled widely in Iceland, collecting an immense number of books, including vellum manuscripts. The majority of his manuscripts were Icelandic, originating from all periods of Icelandic literary history. The oldest manuscripts dated from the 12th century. Prior to Árni’s efforts the king of Denmark and other dignitaries had collected medieval Icelandic manuscripts. A great fire in Copenhagen in 1728 destroyed a major portion of Árni Magnússon’s printed books, as well as a great many manuscripts, especially from more recent periods.

On his deathbed Árni Magnússon willed all his possessions to the University of Copenhagen, which at that time was the only university in all the countries and territories in the Danish kingdom, including Iceland. In Copenhagen a great deal of scholarly work and research has been carried out on the Árni Magnússon collection and in the field of Icelandic studies, especially since 1956, when a special research institute, Det Arnamagnæanske Institut (now Den Arnamagnæanske Samling), took over the collection under the supervision of Professor Jón Helgason (1899-1986).

Return of the Manuscripts from Denmark

In 1961 legislation concerning the manuscripts was passed in Denmark. After lengthy negotiations, the Danish parliament consented to honour the wishes of the Icelandic people and transfer to the University of Iceland a substantial portion of the Icelandic manuscripts that were kept in the Árni Magnússon Collection at the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Royal Library. The law specified that Icelanders would receive the manuscripts that could definitely be classified as Icelandic cultural artifacts: in other words, the texts had to have been compiled or translated by Icelanders, and had to be linked with Iceland and events that occurred there. Because of opposition in Denmark, however, the law was not immediately acted on. The issue eventually ended up in court and was settled by the Danish Supreme Court on 19 March 1971.

On 1 April  1971, a treaty between the two countries was signed, and on 21 April that same year the first two manuscripts, the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda (Konungsbók), and the Codex Flateyensis (Flateyjarbók), containing sagas of Norwegian kings, were received in Iceland with great ceremony and national celebration. A committee of Danish and Icelandic scholars was appointed to determine which manuscripts were covered by the legal provisions and treaty  and in 1986 the final division of the manuscript collection was complete. The last manuscripts were delivered to Iceland in 1997. Today around 1,400 manuscripts and manuscript fragments remain in Den Arnamagnæanske Samling in Copenhagen, but only half of them are of Icelandic provenance; these include several of the oldest extant Icelandic manuscripts. The two institutes named for Árni Magnússon work in close co-operation under the guidance of a committee consisting of two representatives from each institution.

The decision made by the Danes to return to the Icelanders such a substantial portion of the Icelandic manuscripts preserved in Denmark was a groundbreaking move by a former colonial power which aroused international attention and set an important precedent.  It has been considered by Icelanders a very magnanimous act.

The Icelandic Manuscript Institute

The Icelandic Manuscript Institute was established by an Act of the Icelandic parliament Althingi in 1962. That same year professor Einar Ólafur Sveinsson (1899-1984) was appointed the Institute’s director, and other positions were filled during the following year. The Manuscript Institute was located in the former National Library on Hverfisgata (now the Culture House).

The establishment of the Institute was prompted by the anticipated resolution of  the “manuscript issue”. It was evidence that Iceland could preserve, research and develop its unique written heritage. In co-operation with the University of Iceland, construction began on a specially designed building to house the manuscripts and in 1969 the Icelandic Manuscript Institute transferred its offices and activities to the new building, Árnagarður, on the university campus. The Institute has been located there ever since.

The Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland

In 1972 the legislation pertaining to the Institute was amended to create Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi (the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland), most often shortened to Árnastofnun. The Institute was affiliated with the University of Iceland but had its own independent administration and budget. In matters regarding the safeguarding of the manuscripts it reported directly to the government. The rector of the University of Iceland acted as chairman of the Institute’s supervisory board, which also included the director of the Institute and a third member appointed by the Minister of Education. The director also held an appointment as a professor in the Department of Humanities, but had limited teaching duties. Professor Jónas Kristjánsson (b. 1924) filled this position from 1972 to 1994, followed by Professor Stefán Karlsson (b. 1928), from 1994 to 1998. He was succeeded  by Professor Vésteinn Ólason (b. 1939).

The Institute’s staff also included tenured scholars, specialists in the Institute’s research fields, an office manager, a librarian, a conservator, a museum educator, a photographer and security guards, as well as part-time staff and young scholars hired on a temporary basis.

In June 2006 the Icelandic Alþingi adopted new legislation merging the Icelandic Language Institute, the University of Iceland Institute of Lexicography, the Árni Magnússon Institute, the Sigurður Nordal Institute, and the Onomastics Institute of Iceland into a single institution as of 1 September 2006. The new institute would assume the roles and tasks previously performed by each of the individual institutes. Professor Vésteinn Ólason was appointed director of the new Institute of Icelandic Studies on 12 September 2006. Professor Guðrún Nordal is the current director from 1 March 2009.