A Tour Through the Off-the-Beaten-Path Museums of Iceland

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, by A. Kendra Greene (Amazon / Book Depository)

I’ve felt bad lately for certain newly released books that are coming out when the timing is less than ideal, whether for topic or inability to promote. Happily The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is not one of them, as there really couldn’t be a better time to take a dreamy armchair tour through the weirdly wonderful, lesser known museums of Iceland.

The Nordic island has become an especially popular tourist destination in recent years, in no small part thanks to its incomparably breathtaking scenery. But there’s obviously a rich and more often unexplored cultural history, and artist/editor/museum worker A. Kendra Greene shows fascinating sides of it by touring some of the country’s off-the-beaten-path museums and telling the stories of their collections and curators, while in the process revealing a great deal about the people, their mythology, and what brings meaning to them through preservation.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum was clearly the highlight, and seemed to capture the most of Greene’s delight as well, with its collection of many, many penises from a vast array of species — “a kind of mammal-phallus Noah’s Ark”, as Greene puts it. My favorite excursion was to the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, and there are visits to a museum of herring and Iceland’s maritime history, the Museum of Prophecies, and collections of more banal objects that, when put into the context of of their collectors and national history, become much more telling and meaningful.

It’s written ethereally, blending bits of myth and fairy tale with stories of the quietly extraordinary lives of collectors and their loved ones. She examines the quirky personalities who built these quirky collections, and considers the idea of collecting and what it meant to those who dedicated great parts of their lives to it. The writing style does get a bit abstract here and there, but occasionally it also veers into something sublimely, blissfully poetic too.

I liked that she didn’t dwell on the idea of tourism in Iceland or its fabled, photographic landscape and only spent a little while on its well-known quirks, like that infamous meal of shark meat rotted in the ground. It’s enough to put you in the mindset of the place without rehashing the few wider-known national cultural touchpoints. Instead she takes a quieter, narrower, and indoorsy focus, alongside some musing on the idea of all that’s lost and all that’s found, and how in piecing together history we’re at the mercy of those items, objects, and stories that survived:

Who could know all that was already lost? How much has become unknown or unknowable simply because it is no longer there to be counted?

It was a lovely, meditative, and transporting read for the most part. Some of my disappointment should be on me — I misread the title, thinking it was about whales that you can’t see (because they’re deep down in the depths of the ocean). I was very excited for this. But it actually refers to a museum Greene couldn’t get to, with the tantalizing detail that it was in a gas station (I don’t know why, but little sounds more appealing than a whale museum in an Icelandic gas station — I want to go to there). So I was very much looking forward to some whales that in fact, as transparently stated, we really never do see. Heartbreak.

Or does it not even exist to begin with? The writing can become a bit hard to follow in some places, or more like it muses and wanders too far and I had a hard time remembering where we were and what we were doing there or what was happening in Greene’s narrative. Sometimes this sort of lyrical meandering is nice to get lost in; elsewhere I realized I wasn’t following.

Still, this is an appreciative, thoughtful look at some unusual museums, and a thoroughly enjoyable escape to a distant land during a time when we can’t go much of anywhere. Getting to observe these places, so vividly described through someone else’s eyes, was a small, reassuring delight that there’s still so much magic and wonder out in the world waiting for us when we can get back to it.

These are old forces. The magma and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings, and the way we survive this world because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things just to carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without. Enchantments and mysteries and monsters and — the woman on the cusp of transformation searching for her sealskin so she can return home, become again what she was before — this is what we have always held on to, this is how we lash ourselves to the mast. These are old forces — irresistible, shaping the world anew.

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See:
And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums
by A. Kendra Greene
published May 12, 2020 by Penguin

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

14 thoughts on “A Tour Through the Off-the-Beaten-Path Museums of Iceland

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  1. I really want to read this and I’ve wished for it on NetGalley so maybe. Otherwise I will pick it up. I have been to Iceland four times and haven’t felt the need to visit the Penis Museum, but I’ve been to a lot of other ones, including a weird one that re-tells Egill’s Saga in weird dioramas.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Four times, wow! I had no idea before reading this that they had so many quirky museums, especially for a smaller country. She mentions how new many of the museums are, so from within the last 20 years as tourism has picked up there. I think you’d love this one with your experience there, definitely worth buying if your wish doesn’t come true 🙂


    1. It so was! I’ve loved looking at photos from the landscapes there but felt like I didn’t know as much about it culturally and this was such a fascinating glimpse into that side. I think you’d enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Iceland but hadn’t heard of this book. Thanks for posting about it. 🙂 I was scheduled for my third trip there last month but – like everybody else’s – those travel plans got cancelled. I can’t wait to go back again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh I’m so sorry that your trip fell during this time! I hope you’ll make it back there again very soon. Definitely think this is the next best thing at the moment, all things considered…it’s fun to imagine ourselves elsewhere for a little while!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you’ve shined a light on this book in this place. I live along Kendra’s beaten path, and her book was featured in the Dallas Morning News Sunday edition this week. I hadn’t thought about it since attending her quirky event held at the Nasher Sculpture Center, during which she discussed these Icelandic museums. It was at least a couple of years ago, so the book wasn’t in print. Now, here it is, just waiting for me to dig in! (Coming home with stories of the penis museum to regale my spousal unit with was a singular experience.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I bet that was fun to hear her discuss them! She has a great way of storytelling and pulling out really interesting little details. The penis museum was really hilarious, but surprisingly educational, it sounds like, as well. Hope you enjoy the book, and happy I could provide you a little more info on it!

      Liked by 1 person

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