What do museums mean?

‘The Museum of Whales You Will Never See’ by A. Kendra Greene

4 minute read
What do museums—especially the strange ones—tell us about ourselves? (Image courtesy of Penguin Books.)
What do museums—especially the strange ones—tell us about ourselves? (Image courtesy of Penguin Books.)

In Iceland, a country with 330,000 people and 265 museums, A. Kendra Greene’s The Museum of Whales You Will Never See explores seven unusual museums, including the Icelandic Phallological Museum and the Herring Era Museum. In her book of essays, she meditates on the meaning of these institutions and what they tell us about ourselves.

Seven museums

In seven essays, Greene explores the history and founding of each museum, getting to know many of the founders. She starts with the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the only museum that I had heard of prior to reading the book. The museum, she explains, started as a bit of a lark: the founder, while acting as headmaster of a secondary school, received a dried bull penis (what many dog owners call a “pizzle” or “bully stick”) from a student’s parents. The gift kicked off a tradition of colleagues giving him more specimens over time, and after a lively discussion at a bar, the idea of a museum formed, and it has become a bit of a worldwide phenomenon.

While the other museums Greene covers do not have the notoriety of the Phallological Museum, each one presents a different facet of Iceland’s history, natural or man-made. She explores the Herring Era Museum, dedicated to the herring industry that was Iceland’s equivalent of a gold rush. In the far northern-coast town of Siglufjörður, people collected items, even buildings and an oil tank, related to the herrings. Another chapter visits the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft—including necropants, made from human skin that provides the wearer with coins.

Think globally, collect locally

While the book certainly explores Iceland’s cultural and natural history, it’s no travel guide or field guide. Greene had her pick of 265 museums and elected these seven because each presented an opportunity to explore some facet of humanity, not just an outsider’s view of Iceland.

For instance, in her chapter about a museum dubbed Petra’s Stone Collection, Greene considers the distinction between a collection and a museum. Petra, the founder, collected more than just stones, but the museum is dedicated only to this prodigious collection. Greene points out that “collection” and “museum” are not interchangeable terms: the difference lies in people collaborating to select for and against objects.

Even the Phallological Museum is more than a funny side trip. For Greene, it’s a museum about a word, a reminder of the difference between the word “penis” and what it represents. It’s a commentary, perhaps not intentional, between the expectation of the thing and the reality of it. The museum is exactly what it claims to be, Greene says: nothing indecent about it.

Exploring Iceland, inspecting ourselves

This unusual survey balances between guidebook and cultural philosophy, offering much more than a traveler’s view. As a museum and travel lover, I enjoyed not just the backstory of each museum, but also what each of them says about humanity as a whole, including our strange predilection for collecting and displaying objects. I also loved feeling like I was traveling with Greene, going to parts of Iceland that I can only hope to see, maybe in a time when it’s safe to travel for fun again. There’s a poetic quality to Greene’s writing, matching with word and sentence the loftiness of each museum in her book.

Each museum’s essay is itself called a “gallery,” each preceded by a short vignette called a “cabinet,” and here’s the only place the book stutters. These micro-essays fascinate, but they feel unfinished, and the connections to the “gallery” they precede are unclear.

But that’s a minor hiccup. The book feels as odd and ethereal as the museums it explores, a hardback sized like a trade paperback, printed in teal ink with tiny spot illustrations that beguile more than illustrate. Would the book have been better served with photos of the objects Greene describes? Possibly, but it would have drifted more into the world of guidebook. Just like the museum founders themselves, Greene has found meaning and purpose in a collection of taxidermied birds or stories of sea monsters, and she wants to share that with the world.

Image description: The cover of the book The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums. The words appear on a column of color that fades from lime green to light blue, bracketed by white illustrations of flowers and whales.

What, When, Where

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums. By A. Kendra Greene. Penguin Books, May 12, 2020. 272 pages, hardcover. $22.00. Available at Bookshop.

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