The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

I’ll happily pick out a book because of a good title: and The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is an excellent title. Given that the book bearing the title is a travel book about Icelandic museums, I had to buy it.

Iceland’s population is, according to wikipedia, 364,000. Brighton has a population of 230,000 – so Iceland is basically a nation the size of Brighton and Lewes combined. Somehow, this small country has 265 museums. Nobody is quite sure why Iceland has so many, but it is apparently a recent phenomenon.

A. Kendra Greene’s book describes her visits to some of these museums. The writing is exquisite and reminds me of Borges, with subtle and stunning flights of erudition, such as the lovely section about Hermai. The real things she describes sound fantastical, like how Icelanders used seal- or fish-skin for shoes, which wore out quickly. They would measure the distances in terms of how many shoes they needed. Or, take this quote:

Indeed, there is a certain practice in Iceland of making a display of one’s home window. Not everyone does it, and it’s only ever one window of a home, a single stage, but there some combination of taxidermy or seashells or figurines or fake flowers in a little vase. Not a lot of things, not like storage, but the windowsill subbing as a bookshelf. No, just a few things, a spare kind of diorama: just a part of black converse shoes and a puffin posed on a rock.

Another lovely piece of phrasing comes when Greene talks about ‘qualified superlatives’: “The brochure claims ‘Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum is considered the largest private bird collection that is known in Iceland’. One only wonders about collections yet unknown.

The book makes me think of two offbeat museums that I love: Anna’s Museum in Brighton (which now has an entry on Atlas Obscura); and the Museum of Jurassic Technology (I wrote a zine about my trip there). Museums can be simple things, growing from a small wunderkammer, like Anna’s windows. Greene’s book suggests that everyone should have their own museum, however small.

If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *