It is, of course, a cliché to attribute an unusual urge to collect and exhibit to Icelanders. But it is striking that even in the smallest town in Iceland there are often several museums. For example in Stykkishólmur, 1200 inhabitants, a supermarket. The place is best known for the church that looks like a landed UFO, and for the ferry that departs for the remote Westfjords. But there are also three museums in the center alone that you could visit on foot within five minutes: the Eider Museum, which deals with the breeding of the eider duck, the Norwegian House, which is also the oldest building in the town, in which houses a kind of local history museum and a little up the hill the so-called Library of Water, a modern Bauhaus-style building that actually only consists of an art installation: 24 transparent glass tubes with water from various glaciers in Iceland.
So American author A. Kendra Greene is on to something when she explores Icelanders’ urge to run museums for her book The Whale Museum You’ll Never Visit. There are 265 of them in the country, that is one for every 1100 Icelanders. Unfortunately, Greene wasn’t in Stykkishólmur, one would like to know what she would have written about the Library of Water, but she has visited a number of other quirky places that she thought worth reporting, starting with the Penis Museum, which actually has the inlaid , male reproductive organs of almost all mammals found in Iceland.
In the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, among other things, an invisible boy is shown
But Greene is not satisfied with the description. Her chapters on the individual museums are exhibition criticism, reportage, historiography and regional studies all in one. You will learn why Petra from the Eastfjords eventually started collecting stones and why, although she has long since passed away, her collection is still cared for by the family. And in the summer, meanwhile, busloads of tourists come to see them. Or what actually makes the small herring so special that it is called the king of fish, and why a kind of large open-air museum is actually dedicated to it in the half-forgotten fishing village of Siglufjörður, which was once an industrial center. Or how it came about that the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, where, among other things, an invisible boy is shown, is also the tourist office.
Greene manages to hold all this information together with a frenzy similar to that of Icelanders in an encyclopaedic, sometimes rambling style that often pushes the limits of realism when, for example, she describes how Petra’s stone collection found its way out of the house: “a reverse avalanche rolling up stone by stone in slow motion as if gravity were calling those stones back to the peaks like a tide. You learn a lot about Iceland, apart from the essentials, but only as remote as possible about remote places, times long past and sea monsters. This is neither a travel guide nor a travelogue, but worth reading for anyone who wants to know how it actually happened that one day a man named Sigurgeir decided to open a bird museum at Mückensee.