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.