From Anatomy of a Museum
A. Kendra Greene
Excerpted from Anatomy of a Museum, forthcoming from Anomalous Press
The first thing I see when I enter the museum is a half-naked man. Not a photograph or a painting or a sculpture of such a figure, but an actual man standing there with his shirt off. He's a fit specimen, early twenties, and as I top the stairs I notice there's a second man, a brunette this time, in exactly the same state of undress.
“Medium,” they're telling the curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The curator, who seems to find nothing out of the ordinary in this transaction, says nothing in any case, steps into a back room. When he returns a moment later the two shirtless Scotsmen pay for two t-shirts: the brunette covering himself in the IPM seal and the redhead donning a block of text listing the museum's name in seven languages.
The curator is organizing their krona into the slots of a wooden cashbox carved from good Icelandic birch into the shape of a phallus the size of a lunchbox. I am doing nothing so useful, and so they appeal to me to be their photographer. I hear something like “she doesn't know yet” as they set up the shot. The southwest corner of the main gallery will be their backdrop, the two men flanked by three of the more impressive phallic specimens on display. The redhead shows me where to stand, makes sure the killer whale and the sperm whale specimens are in the frame. And then the two men drop their pants. I click the shutter.
The redhead, it turns out, is a zoologist. His brunette friend is a biologist, and they need this picture because they're on a swim team. There's a tradition, they tell me, when on holiday, of posing in the team swimming briefs in front of monuments and tourist attractions. The swimming briefs are easy to pack. The zoologist and the biologist believe in tradition.
“The pyramids at Giza, the pyramids in Mexico, the Parthenon…” the zoologist explains to me, listing previous photo ops. “One guy got arrested in front of the White House last year,” he says with some combination of envy and pride. “We were hoping we'd get chucked out of here, so we could say, 'We got chucked out of the penis museum,' but the guy,” he says, nodding to the curator, “he's too nice!”
Sigurður Hjartarson is written up more often for his gruffness, but after 131 articles and one documentary film about his museum, perhaps he’s just tired of the same questions. How many ways can you ask: Why a penis museum? And, ultimately, what else is there to say in response but: Why not?
Twenty-seven countries on at least four continents have published articles about the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The ones in languages I can read characterize the place as weird, kooky, odd-ball, odd, infamous, unique, and sadistic. Mostly it’s a matter of headlines, and it probably shouldn’t bother me, but flipping through the museum’s archives—nine scrapbooks on a bookshelf where Whales, Dolphins and Porposises touches covers with Sexualia: from prehistory to cyberspace—I begin to take umbrage, I begin to bristle at how rarely anyone seems to notice what an appealing little museum it is. It’s curious, yes, but also exotic, familiar, with chairs to sit on and sized to the average attention span. Plus, frankly, it’s not all that odd a place.
From a certain perspective, it’s downright traditional. Without the individual collector or the amateur naturalist, what museums would we have left? Both are fundamental and ever-present pillars of museum history. If Sigurður Hjartarson’s museum is odd, perhaps it's because it’s so old-fashioned, not because it's such newfangled novelty. And anyway, novelty itself is a museum tradition. You want to see a human molar rooted in a rooster’s skull like a bony comb? You want a hermaphroditic giant moth with one wing the size and pattern of a male and the other that of a female? You want a gemstone in a color you didn’t know existed? A mineral formed of its own composition into a perfect cube? Vintage Valentines with racist punch lines? You want to be surprised, you get yourself to a museum. Museums were born of novelty. They specialize in it. And furthermore, they do it well. Though some, I’ll admit, do it better than others.
A. Kendra Greene has vaccinated wild boars in Chile and modeled dresses twisted from balloons. She is currently looking for reasons to love Dallas, Texas, and keeps a blog of her findings at dallasneedsacheerleader.blogspot.com. A writer and letterpress printer, her work is published in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2010, and held in special collections as far away as Qatar. Even as we speak, she is writing a memoir about museums. More at greeneinkpress.com.