A modern landmark aimed at sharing the cultural heritage of a particularly beautiful part of Norway opened this summer on the main island of Vega. The UN granted World Heritage status to the Vega Archipelago 15 years ago, but only now does the public have a place to learn more about the islands’ history and sturdy residents.
Not everyone is willing to pay the rather stiff entrance fee of NOK 150 (USD 18) to see a short film about the Vega islands and the debut exhibition about how people have struggled to sustain themselves on the islands for thousands of years. Two Norwegian men who’d driven out to the site at Gardsøya on Vega’s main island turned around and left on a recent summer weekday, while others who paid perhaps viewed the fee as a contribution towards maintaining Vega’s sustainability.
The Norwegian government is making a contribution as well, committing NOK 1.8 million a year to the center’s operating budget. The center itself, which Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited in May, cost around NOK 50 million, financed with funding from the government ministry for climate and the environment, Norway’s environmental directorate, Nordland County, Vega’s municipal government and various sponsors.
It’s all supposed to provide for a competence, exhibition and visitor center to highlight Vega’s unique natural and cultural attributes, and create value for the local community. Tourism has been creating value as well, but remains controlled by the sheer challenge of getting to Vega on ferries with limited capacity. A relatively small selection of lodging and dining options on Vega can also tend to fend off mass tourism.
The islands themselves are protected by the World Heritage Area boundary, a buffer zone that includes privately owned areas of Vega and the nearby island of Ylvingen, plus designated nature preservation areas where no further development is allowed. The latter includes island communities that once were thriving fishing villages and where eider down was cultivated by women caring for eider ducks over the centuries.
They’re at the center of the stylish and informative opening exhibition at the center this summer, women like Alida Nilsen, who lived from 1904 to 1994, and Bergliot Tåvær (1907-2001). Both toiled in rough conditions and were among those making do with available resources. They carried on a long tradition of tending to eider ducks by providing them with safe nesting areas in return for being able to collect their down when the birds eventually flew off. Even today, eider down is worth 10 times that of goose down, since clothing, mittens and coverlets made with eider down can last for 50 years and still be light and warm.
The women cultivated the eider down and carried out subsistence farming along with the men, who also risked their lives fishing in often stormy but plentiful seas. The entire Vega Archipelago encompasses thousands of islands and skerries over an area covering around 1,000 square kilometers just off the scenic coast of Helgeland, west of Sandnessjøen in Nordland County.
It’s the cultural landscape dotted with isolated old homes, barns and boathouses that won Vega its World Heritage status. According to the UN, the area’s “universal value lies in the way the area has handed down history and how cultural traditions evolved” in an area exposed to harsh conditions but rich in natural resources.
Other efforts are being made to make the islands at least slightly more accessible to visitors. No one lives permanentlhy on the outlying islands any longer, but new generations of women and men are reviving eider down production in the spring and summer. Small groups of visitors can take part in limited boat tours out to the islands of Lånan in July.
Around 40,000 tourists are year are now visiting the main Vega island every year, to fish, hike, bicycle or paddle in crystal clear waters. Even tourism promoters caution that the outer islands can’t tolerate even a small portion of that, but it remains possible to go ashore on some of the islands for those with their own boat.