The drinking helped. You cannot receive a whale penis, I think we will agree, and not have your friends find out. Not in a town of five thousand people. Not when these are friends you drink with. And it probably does not matter that your friends are academics and members of parliament – someone is going to make a joke. Indeed, the jokes will get harder and harder to resist. Your friends will insert them everywhere. It’s natural. There’s no helping it. They’ll become a handful. And no matter how erudite or innocent you imagine yourself to be, you will discover that everything is funnier when you talk about a penis museum. Eventually you will – you must – surrender to its charms.
And so it was at the bar in Akranes. Before you knew it, Sigurður and his friends were joking their way through the finer points of organizing an imaginary establishment. They coined an Icelandic acronym for the Phallological Museum: RIS/HIS, a play on words that translates as ‘rise happy’. The English word phallological is Sigurður’s own coinage, but he credits a colleague in the Latin department for describing the hypothetical institution as a phalloteca. They were always generous with one another, their contributions rewarded in honorifics from the nonexistent institution, until every one of them was pronounced, at the very least, an upright member in good standing.
None of this was raised as a serious possibility, of course. But that it existed as any kind of possibility, no matter how dubious, changed things. The Icelandic Phallological Museum became, if only remotely, possible. It had been given the special power of something with a name. The collection may have started with a whip, but the museum, I believe it is safe to say, was born at the bar. They weren’t necessarily accurate prognosticators. No one at the bar said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if your daughter and daughter-in-law had a bit of space in their children’s clothing shop for your museum and you could sit whittling penis souvenirs while grading papers?’ But so it went. The women were having trouble making rent, so they offered Sigurður half the roughly 3,800-square-foot storefront in a tidy little alley off Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Sigurður was already in his third decade of collecting, and he had representations for thirty-four of the island’s thirty-six mammal species sitting at home. So why not? He moved sixty-two specimens into his half of the shop, and the Icelandic Phallological Museum opened to the public on August 23, 1997. It was Sigurður’s fifty-sixth birthday.
The first article about the collection was published seventeen years before there was any museum to visit. The early thrust of the collection was whales, and by 1980 there were thirteen specimens to report on. A Reykjavík paper decided to cover the penises under a headline that translates as 30kg whale penis delivered in a plastic bag.
When I ask Sigurður how a collection becomes a museum, he shrugs. It’s the same reaction I get from the retired professor at the Volcano Museum, out on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, or really from any museum anywhere else in this country. These things, he says, who knows? The local newspaper finds out you have an interest and they publish something, people ask to see what you’ve got, they make appointments to come over, and the whole thing matures, transitions. With every inquiry, the private collection becomes a bit more public. And then, one day, strangers are giving you money.
In Sigurður’s case, someone from a local women’s group might call to arrange a field trip, or a friend hosting a few foreign visitors would ask to stop by. In Iceland, a bachelorette party is not a stag party or a hen party but a ‘goose party’, and the goose parties, too, started calling.
Maybe it means nothing (I’m almost sure that’s so), but I will note that all the museum’s opening-night speeches were made by women. The men – all the writers and parliamentarians, the left-leaning, beer-drinking men who had been gabbing and joshing and prodding the museum along for years – were silent. They stood on the sidelines and clapped. It was as if by that time there was nothing left to be said. Their words had already done their work, given them this place to stand in, and perhaps that was enough to reckon with to leave them speechless.
Only one of them, a musician, had anything to offer up: an original composition he played later that night, when everyone had settled in, the speeches were over, and perhaps the less serious talk had resumed.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is smaller than you’d think. The domestic collection of 212 specimens fits in one room. The combined sixty-four items in the foreign and folkloric collections share an oversize alcove. And yet, still, it is a little overwhelming. The first thing I do at the Icelandic Phallological Museum, moments after I have crossed its threshold, is pause long enough to collect myself, and visit the loo.
Even for those 60 percent of visitors who won’t be using a phallus to relieve themselves, the water closet seems a natural introduction to the subject at hand – and the very architecture of the museum suggests the option. The main door opens to a landing, a small foyer presenting two options to continue on. Stairs up and to the left arrive at the museum galleries; stairs down and to the right (it sounds almost Freudian) deliver you to locked storage and the WC.
This is not by design. The design suggested for the museum, according to a cartoon in the archives, was a long corridor of a gallery met at one end by a pair of circular structures housing a gift shop in one lobe and a café in the other – a structure not unlike the actual design of Iceland’s international airport, the aerial views of which were much commented on after its unveiling. No, that the museum should be housed in the peculiar architecture of Héðinsbraut 3a has only to do with the local bank, which offered the location to the museum for pennies on the dollar, glad to have something occupying the hundred-year-old house, someone to look after it and stop up its drafts.
The little signs marking the men’s and the ladies’ aren’t of a set. The men’s is a shingle of wood painted with a naked boy peeing into a bowl. The craftsmanship is a little rough, but the action is unmistakable. The ladies’ room, on the other hand, is more discreet, mysterious, marked by a porcelain oval displaying a Victorian lady covered up from floor-touching hem to ruffled neck to gloved hands. Unlike the naked boy, she suggests nothing of the room’s utility, hints coyly that perhaps behind that door you might – who knows what? – go for a stroll in the country, or adjust your boots without shamelessly flashing someone an ankle.
If you ask Sigurður why no vaginas, why not a museum of genitalia generally? He will tell you, with the wink of a man married some fifty years, ‘Women, in all things, are more complicated than men.’ He’s not being arch. Well, he is, but there is a practical concern. It’s already a technical challenge to display the emphatically convex, and what a museum can show has a lot to do with what it can keep. This museum, as much as it is anything, is a study in preservation. And preservation, especially here, is a series of experiments.
The first two whale specimens, a fin whale and a sei whale, were filled with silicon, then salt to eat away the fat. Sigurður concedes, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ But one has to do something, of course. Time is ticking. The curator chose, and chose quickly, and to be fair that choice has lasted forty years, even if now the skin of the sei whale is cracked down the left side in a meandering squiggle, the skin pulled apart like the banks of a lazy river.
A different sei whale phallus represents a different choice, the specimen bent in half and folded over itself to fit inside a canning jar capable of holding the volume but not strictly the length of its contents. Indeed, choices abound: Where one minke whale penis was hollowed, salted, dried, and placed on a wooden plaque, another was left whole, complete with retractor muscles and pelvic bones, to rest in its own aquarium like an aberrant nautilus, the glass plate covering it pregnant with cloudy drops of condensation, the internal tissues feathering the way cut cloth frays.
Every preparation in some way compromises how the specimen would have been in life. Disintegrating tissue clouds the formalin in flakes and fluffy blooms. The skin of a sperm whale specimen pulls away from its wooden core, a thin mottling black dermis and the rest gone to suede. A sixty-pound blue whale penis that once barely fit in the backseat is now shaggy and shriveled to one-third its size. Meanwhile, the formalin in another blue whale specimen’s container has been changed three times to clear the blood and oil, most recently three years ago, and since then a layer of oil as thick as my finger has leached from the organ and coagulated so that it floats like a plate of amber, forty centimeters beneath the actual glass top.
Formalin works because it kills. It’s terribly toxic. Drop the bottle of formaldehyde you’re handling and you have five, maybe six seconds to get out of the room, out of the building. You always use it diluted. Just a 3.5 percent formalin solution is enough to keep a specimen forever; it kills whatever bacteria and fungi might otherwise decay the tissue. Sigurður had to get a permit to handle the stuff back in the 1970s, though no regulators have checked on him since.
It takes two or three days for the formalin to stiffen a specimen. Hopefully you’ve positioned it well. Hopefully you got it warm so you could draw out the blood. After the formalin has done its work, the specimen can be switched to storage in alcohol. But alcohol, although vastly safer, is more expensive than formalin, so not everyone bothers.
Sigurður, of course, has other collections. He collects books, music, bugs, pre-Columbian and indigenous South American art. Growing up, his four children and their friends were always most interested in the bug collection, despite the growing number of phallus specimens accumulating in the den. For a year the family traveled widely in Mexico, to museums and libraries and anything that caught their fancies. And with just a little cotton dabbed in formaldehyde, they subdued and collected all the tarantulas they wanted and more insects than they could name.
Insects, you will know if you so much as dust in the corners, desiccate exquisitely. They virtually dry themselves. When it comes to the simple illusion of enduring form, let us praise the desolate exoskeleton! And then let us bow our heads, and pity those curators ever endeavoring to preserve a pound of flesh.
Photograph © The Icelandic Phallological Museum