Mythic creatures, natural wonders, and the mysterious human impulse to collect are on beguiling display in this poetic tribute to the museums of an otherworldly island nation.
Iceland is home to only 330,000 people (roughly the population of Lexington, Kentucky) but more than 265 museums and public collectionsnearly one for every ten people. They range from the intensely physical, like the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which collects the penises of every mammal known to exist in Iceland, to the vaporously metaphysical, like the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, which poses a particularly Icelandic problem: How to display what can't be seen? In The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, A. Kendra Greene is our wise and whimsical guide through this cabinet of curiosities, showing us, in dreamlike anecdotes and more than thirty charming illustrations, how a seemingly random assortment of objectsa stuffed whooper swan, a rubber boot, a shard of obsidian, a chastity belt for ramscan map a people's past and future, their fears and obsessions. "The world is chockablock with untold wonders," she writes, "there for the taking, ready to be uncovered at any moment, if only we keep our eyes open."
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
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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.