On a remote hillside in Iceland, a woman named Petra gathers stones she finds on her daily hikes. When she is not deboning fish in the local factory, Petra is rock hunting. Gradually, over the course of decades, she amasses a stunning collection, objects that are “mint green and rouge red, flat matte and crystal clear, all of it spun in spindles and spires and lumps and swirls and brittles and pastes and bubbles and smears.”
At the time, Petra doesn’t know she is collecting what will become a small museum. But A. Kendra Greene, in her delightful new work of nonfiction, “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See,” knows exactly what she is doing: creating a sketch of contemporary Iceland, as told through the copious whimsical museums that dot the island nation.
Greene’s book contains all the markers of exploration. She offers us maps, notes on Icelandic seasons, oddball conversion charts (16 merkur, we learn, is the “approximate weight of a human baby”) as well as pronunciation tips on Icelandic letters like “thorn” and “eth.” All of this evokes the pleasant hum of wonder that accompanies immersion in a foreign land.
Yet if this is a travel book, it’s an unorthodox one, in that it is not immediately interested in orienting the reader in country. In fact, “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See” is dreamy and disorienting in the best way, since Greene is after more elusive prey than capital cities and sightseeing. She’s after the character of a country and has chosen a fascinating means of pursuing it — the niche museums of Iceland, of which there are an outsized number (at least 265 museums and public collections on an island of 330,000 people).
If a nation’s museums sounds like a sleepy topic, Greene anticipates this and sets out directly for the Icelandic Phallological Museum — the penis museum, which contains a specimen from every type of mammal in the country (yes, every). From there she discovers museums of herring, of witchcraft and sorcery, of sea monsters, and of seagull tricks, among others. Many of these establishments winkingly stretch the definition of “museum” past its accepted limits, asking us to expand our sense of imagination.
Greene, who has worked and volunteered at museums in Chicago and Dallas and Iowa City, Iowa, is an aficionado of the institution. But the museums that fill this book are never entirely the point — they are launchpads for her analytical mind and poetic eye, opportunities to paint loving portraits of the eccentric curators whose devotions fuel these strange outposts. Her gaze is drawn to the faraway corners of Iceland, to personal fascinations and labors of love and offbeat dreamers.
It is a clever move to tell a story of a country through the things it collects, which is to say a story of the passions of its residents. In this way, Greene’s book operates as a sly people’s history, the ground-level chronicle of a nation. What her book teaches is that enthusiasm is magnetic. Petra the fish-gutter’s rock collection draws 25,000 visitors each summer to a small personal residence in a far-flung town of 200 people.
Greene is a deft and skillful writer. She can be funny when the subject calls for it (say, visiting a penis museum) or slip into elegy, as when she explores the tragic circumstances surrounding a lakeside museum of taxidermied birds. She can wax lyrically, then pivot in an instant to bluntness: “A puffin is a bird built like a bullet.” With her attention to language and her insight into human behavior, Greene makes for a charming guide, a literary traveler in the spirit of Bruce Chatwin. And like Chatwin, Greene is ultimately interested in, as she writes, “the way we love the pieces of this painfully, gloriously physical world … the way we survive it because of the stories we fashion from its shards.”
Will McGrath is a writer and journalist in Minneapolis. His debut book, “Everything Lost Is Found Again,” won the 2019 Bernard J. Brommel Award for Biography & Memoir.
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See
By: A. Kendra Greene.
Publisher: Penguin Books, 272 pages, $22.