The museum of whales you will never see And other excursions into the landscape and dreamscape of Iceland

A. Kendra Greene

Book - 2020

"The author offers a portrait of Iceland through this series of essays about its most unusual museums. She shows the reader how a seemingly random assortment of objects can map a people's past and future, their fears and obsessions, their dreams and visions."--

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Travel writing
Personal narratives
New York : Penguin Books [2020]
Main Author
A. Kendra Greene (author)
Physical Description
xv, 252 pages : illustrations, map ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Greene, an American writer, artist, and Fulbright recipient, presents a thoroughly surprising book on a completely unexpected topic that will fill readers with joyful literary appreciation. In this tremendously engaging and idiosyncratic guidebook, Greene celebrates Icelandic curiosity and creativity, while also deeply exploring the country's history and people. As she recounts her visits to a selection of Iceland's 265 intriguing museums and public collections and her conversations with curators, she shares her own observations while considering objects found in the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, the Herring Era Museum, and more. With an ear for stories and an eye for delight, Greene has crafted a chronicle that shines with wit and warms with compassion. Why do the 330,000 people of Iceland embrace offbeat collecting so passionately? What draws them to the secrets of stones or makes them want to see folklore-inspired displays? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but Greene, a creative and eloquent twenty-first-century cultural explorer, asks them anyway, and her investigations have resulted in a gleaming gem of intelligent writing and an exuberant travelogue.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Artist and Southwest Review associate editor Greene (Vagrants and Uncommon Visitors) delivers a delightful one-of-a-kind journey through some of Iceland's, if not the world's, most unusual museums. Greene takes the reader all over the small island nation, from remote Bíldudalur, home of the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, to tiny Skógar, home to 21 people and to Iceland's largest museum outside of Reykjavík. The institutions visited range from collections of mundane artifacts from Iceland's once-thriving herring industry to the most unlikely of museums, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a "kind of mammal-phallus Noah's Ark." Greene turns what easily could have become a mere cabinet of curiosities into a thoughtful and complex work. Insightful meditations on the nature of collecting and writers' role as organizers and curators of their own work complement passages on Icelandic history, and all add color and context to the museums described. Almost as hard to classify as it would be not to enjoy, Greene's expertly assembled blend of travel writing, history, museum studies, and memoir proves as memorable as any museum exhibition. (May)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Not so much a guidebook as a meditation on how museums develop, this book from writer/artist Greene explores the social and cultural history of the people and country of Iceland. It is a tribute to museums of an island nation with only 333,000 people but more than 265 museums. How does a seemingly random assortment of objects map a people's past and future? From the Icelandic Phallological Museum to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, most museums in Iceland were established in the past 20 years, coinciding with the increased interest in tourism. The author considers how collections by themselves are just groups of things, and how a collection becomes a museum when it is arranged into a story. VERDICT For travelers and those interested in museums, collecting, Icelandic history and culture, and a poetic look at the country's museums.--Susan Belsky, Oshkosh P.L., WI

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A quirky, personal travel guide to some of the offbeat sites that Iceland has to offer. Greene, who has worked at several museums, joyfully recounts her experiences in Iceland, a country of 330,000 people, visiting 28 of their 265 museums, most "established in the last twenty years." In this debut memoir, the author writes that she's never "known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist." Some, in fact, don't exist--e.g., the title museum. There's an air of Italo Calvino's fantastical Invisible Cities wafting its way throughout, as Greene guides us with childlike wonder through such museums as "Sverrir Hermannsson's Sundry Collection," the "Herring Era Museum," "The Museum of Prophecies," and the "Icelandic Sea Monster Museum." First up is the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a "kind of mammal-phallus Noah's Ark," where visitors can gaze upon penises of duck, ocean perch, polar bears, and other domestic and foreign animals. On one wall there's a "lovely installation," Our Silver Boys, which the author describes as "fifteen silver casts representing the Icelandic national handball team, stood upright like thriving mushrooms." Petra's Stone Collection, picked by herself and family members near their home, is outside, for all to see. Greene's story is not just about the museums, but also about the people who create their individualistic collections and their families, who often keep them and a small cafe or gift shop going. Greene tantalizes us with a visit to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, formerly a hardware store, curated by Siggi, or the Sorcerer, which displays whips, life-size facsimiles of outlandish Icelandic necropants (pants made from a dead man's skin) and 11 installations. "Ten," Greene writes, "if you fail to count the invisible boy." A beguiling and witty assessment of a country's obsessive urge to curate. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Arrival   Lilja collects me from the airport bus under a gray morning sky and, swinging my bag into her little silver car, asks if I got her message not to worry about the volcano. Because you shouldn't, and it won't affect your trip, and these things happen all the time. The whole trans-Atlantic approach from Boston to Reykjavík takes less than five hours, which is scarcely time enough to fall asleep or start a third in-flight movie or convince yourself of the proper pronunciation of every unfamiliar letter in the Icelandic alphabet--eth and thorn, especially--but it is apparently long enough to board an airplane and cross half an ocean without having any idea you are aimed straight at a sudden increase in seismic activity. Not that it should be surprising. Just the 45 minutes from the international airport to the bus terminal downtown is a misty drive through old lava fields and venting hot springs, a gradual accumulation of houses and buildings tracing the ocean's edge of an island straddling two tectonic plates: an island that rose up from these waters in the first place precisely because of those plates, their penchant to slip and grind and spill their molten heart. She says, Don't worry about the volcano , and in the same breath begins to describe the possibility of ash clouds and gas masks and helicopters plucking hikers from the mountains because there's no better way to alert them that they may be in mortal peril. Lilja pulls up the national weather service's website, teaches me to toggle from the outline of Iceland annotated with the forecast of rain, to the one predicting the visibility of the northern lights, to the dots and stars mapping a string of tiny earthquakes, every shift and shock detected for the last 72 hours. Mostly, on the map, they register not much more than a Richter Scale's 3.0. I grew up along another shoreline, in California, and the freckling map prompts a certain kind of nostalgia, a tenderness for these almost imperceptible events. I am to keep vigil, she says. I am to refresh and refresh and refresh the map. It doesn't matter that they are tiny, doesn't matter that they are all but obscure. I am to watch whether the number of tremors waxes or wanes. I am to notice how their alignment is not random--every one of them a sign. I am to witness: Their accumulation in fact articulates the frontiers of fault line and fissure we cannot otherwise see. It describes those underpinnings shaping everything else. And, though we may tremble, it points us ever toward what may just happen next. The ridgelines here are black rock or lupine-laced, perhaps dotted with sheep, if not dusted with snow. Where there is shoreline enough I pick up sea glass and shards of china, walk past feathers and sometimes bones. I have come, I think it is right to say, because of the borders of this place. Because not just here but always: Something happens at the edges. I have come for the perimeter of territory staked out under the name museum . Because, for all the museums I have worked for or volunteered at or interned with, for all the continents where I have been the museum visitor, I have never known a place where the boundaries between private collection and public museum are so profoundly permeable, so permissive, so easily transgressed and so transparent as if almost not to exist. So maybe don't make plans until we know if the lava is melting the glacial ice, if the flood of all that water unbound will close the northern roads or the southern roads or, who knows--it's happened--both. They say that if you're baptized wrong, if the holy water does not wash over your eye, you may retain another sight, may see the elves even when they do not choose to reveal themselves to you. And I feel something of that old story here, that I have been given a glimpse of something extraordinary, hidden though it was there the whole time, interwoven amidst everything else we see or know or put in our pockets or hold in our hands. Some time later, in the calm of a museum café, I will be chatting with a family visiting from my homeland, and I will tell them how the local museum studies professor puts the count at 265 museums and public collections in this country of 330,000 people--how that alone would be astonishing--but remember almost all these places have been established in the last twenty years, like seeds dormant forever and then triggered at last by some great fire, some sharp snap of frost, to finally take root and bloom. Amazing, they agree, though they sit there in the museum café, sipping their coffees, never leaving the antechamber for the exhibits within. Outside, the mist collects and recedes, gathers up and blows through, the world beyond the museum's glass wall always there but veiled, disintegrating, fading in and out of perception's reach. And anyway it doesn't have to flood; it could spew ash . Maybe the crops die, maybe the sheep are poisoned, maybe you breathe through a washcloth and famine sparks the French Revolution. These are old forces. The magma, and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love the pieces of this painfully, gloriously physical world but also the way we survive it because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings. But it's the stories. The stories are something else. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things that can carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without. We love enchantments and mysteries and monsters and ghosts. We love 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 onto. This is how we lash ourselves to the mast. These are old forces--irresistible--shaping the world anew. The Museum of Something Mumbled   There was famine. And the family determined they could save one son by sending him away. Or maybe, with one less mouth to feed, they determined they could save themselves. So they arranged for his passage to North America, a very long time on a ship. As the sailing date drew near, the boy was sick, too sick to journey--but everything was arranged and someone had to go, so they sent a different son, even younger, in his place.             Relatives in North America dutifully met the ship, but when they could not find the name of the first son on the manifest, could not find the boy they had come for and did not know to look for another, they went home again, empty-handed. It did not matter when they learned of the substitution, if they learned of the substitution. No one heard from the boy who had been sent on the ship. No one was found who claimed they had seen him. No one could determine where the lost boy had died.             Only he wasn't dead. More than a decade after that first ship had docked, he stepped off another, returning home to Iceland, intent to find a bride. In all that time he'd never written. In all that time he'd never sent word. He had scarcely more to say in the flesh: something curt and mumbled about the native people, that they should be treated better, but no further accounting of his survival, of how that starving child became a man, standing here in a buffalo coat. I myself know nothing more of him, of his story, would not know even this except for the buffalo coat, sequestered here in a glass case as if it had stepped into a phone booth to make a call. And even this, what little I know, feels misplaced, though it turns like a key in a lock. It feels like a story not meant for me, in part, because it hardly feels on display. It's not in the main museum but in an entry building, in a kind of hallway before temporary exhibits, at the far edge of the museum café. The coat has been given a footprint of text in its case, everything properly printed and kerned. It is a text shorter even than the story I tell here, the words in Icelandic but not echoed in another tongue, not a one of the other languages of the people who knew this man, knew the lost boy long enough for his shoulders to fill out this coat. I assume the text, too, says something curt and mumbled. This is the story I was given though I came looking for a reverend, after I was shown that man's frock and shoes. This is the story I was given after I kept asking about a different boat: the old fishing boat docked in sod and rotting on the museum lawn, never quite enough money to maintain it, now too dangerous to climb aboard, though everyone who grew up here used to clamber about its planks and railings as a child. I keep this stray gem as one does any precious thing. I have the sense to hold close this story I did not come for, could not have asked for. I see the windfall immediately. This is the story I was given only after I was given the grand tour, after I was invited to rest in the museum café, after I thought my questions were answered, after I was given coffee and given cake, until I could eat no more. Excerpted from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums by A. Kendra Greene All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.