The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland
Reviewed by Richard West
“The past flows with the present,
Into the deep pool of Now.’ (Anon.)
Visiting Iceland, even reading about it, is never a disappointment as when Friday visits Sunday. The landscape is Day Four of the Creation: huge glaciers, naked lava, hot springs and geysers, volcanoes, black-sand beaches, sulfurous pools, a world of sky, fire, water, earth. The latest eruption in this nation the size of Ohio: 265 museums, almost all within the last 20 years, charmingly explored in A. Kendra Greene’s recent “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland.” If this country is new to you, she is the perfect compass to travel by.
Ms. Greene begins at Reykjavik’s Icelandic Phallological Museum, 212 domestic intromittent organs including all 36 of Iceland’s mammals, hairy specimens from goats, a dragonfly, ocean perch. Sixty-four foreign ones are upstairs, including penis bones of young Greenlandic seals, “thin and tan as matchsticks.” And the stupor-mundi wonder of the penis world, the blue whale’s 60 pounder, now, alas, baggy and reduced to one-third its size. To which she draws neither moral nor metaphor.
Don’t expect kooky-salacious-infamous. All this in two rooms about as eyebrow-raising as Oxford’s natural history museum.
On Iceland’s southern coast near the spectacular 191-foot Skogafoss waterfall, the Skogar Museum, the largest one outside of the capital, a nicknacktarian’s triumph of 15,000 objects—chastity belts for rams, cow-tail filters, a wooden cat mousetrap, things from a time of poverty and plague when an Icelandic Bible cost three cows.
On to The Herring Era Museum in far north Siglufjordur, perhaps better known as the setting for Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ Scandi noir novels. The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavik and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in Bildudalur have solved the problem of displaying what can’t be seen.
I especially liked her imaginary museums: the Museum of Darkness, a Museum of Seagull Tricks, the Museum of Icelandic Polar Bears (there are none).
Along her crinkum-crankum twists and turns, Greene truffles her book with Icelandic history and a native’s knowledge of the place: ‘Hvalreki’, whale-stranding, a word for unexpected good luck; 81f, Iceland’s highest recorded temperature; one phone book for all 330,000 residents, listings by first name; noting there’s no army-navy-air force; mentioning Our Silver Boys, the handball team that placed second in the 2008 Olympics, the nation’s sport heroes.
And the Museum of Whales You Will Never See? Kendra Greene didn’t either. Supposedly behind a service station, not this one. Hmm. My advice: the Icelandic proverb, “When you’re lost, follow a dog.”
“The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, Travels Among the Collectors of Iceland” by A. Kendra Greene. (Penguin).
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.