FEATURE | By Kit Stolz
The Search for the Extraordinary
In Iceland, writes Kendra Greene, some people are born with a kind of second sight — the ability to see the magical.
“They say if you’re baptized wrong, if the holy water does not wash over your eye, you may retain another sight,” writes Greene in a unique new collection of essays called “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See.”
“You may see the elves even when they do not choose to reveal themselves to you. And I feel something of that old story here [in Iceland], that I have been given a glimpse of something extraordinary, hidden though it was there the whole time, interwoven amid everything else we see or know or put in our pockets or hold in our hands.”
The search for “something extraordinary” has been a life quest of sorts for Greene, who came of age in Ojai in the 1990s.
Over time she went from Nordhoff High School to the University of Iowa’s famed writing program, to a Fulbright Scholarship teaching English in Korea, a stint in the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Harvard Library’s Innovation Lab, among other stops.
Her new book of essays, published this year in this country by Penguin Books, begins by juxtaposing the most shriveled of realities — dried penises from all the species of mammals in Iceland, collected in the Icelandic Phallological Museum — against the frivolous depiction of this same museum in newspapers and magazines.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is described in articles from publications around the world with terms such as “weird” and “kooky,” she points out, when in fact it’s a small, scientifically accurate collection of anatomical specimens displayed without any joking. The gap between the austere reality of the museum and the colorful story that has grown up around it intrigued Greene, who spent many days in the museum talking with the curator and observing visitors to better understand its nature.
“The Icelandic Phallological Museum is a museum of language. For a thing [the phallus] that has such cultural significance, with festivals and monuments and shrines around the world, this is the one museum devoted to it,” she reflects. “
The joke is that they have taken a taboo that you think you know you shouldn’t say out loud and definitely not in the hallowed walls of an institution and shown it to be almost unrecognizable without all the cultural associations and the baggage.
The museum is exactly what it says it is — which is kind of the last thing you’d think.
They don’t have to make a joke of it, because the visitor was so ready to supply the punchline and that is what’s funny. It’s not a laughable museum; it’s a museum of great wit.”
In fact this museum began as a kind of practical joke. A scholar, author, conservationist and teacher named Sigurdur Hjartarason,
working as a schoolmaster in a small town, was given a dried bull penis. He put it on a shelf in his office. Hearing of this unusual gift, some of his teachers — while working at a whaling station in the area during the summer — starting bringing him whale penises.
“Which is to say,” Greene writes, “the initial expansion of the collection began as a joke. Imagine the strange satisfaction of plopping a giant penis across your boss’s desk. Yes, it was a very good joke. And then, it’s hard to say when, it became something more.” It’s this transition — from a private collection to something more, something to be shared with the public — that fascinates Greene.
She points out that the history of museums goes back to private collections of curiosities, the “cabinets of wonder” that naturalists and explorers — and very often eccentrics — had in their homes, such as were found at the start of the venerable Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum first opened in 1683, but most of Iceland’s hundreds of museums have come to life in the past twenty-five years or so, and most began as private collections that outgrew their owners’ homes.
The most famous example of this private collection turned public display in Iceland must be Petra’s Stone Collection.
On the remote and storm-battered eastern shore of Iceland, known for its volcanic rock, a woman named
Petra Sweinsdottir walked day in and day out for decades, quietly picking up eye-catching rocks and stones and bringing them home.
Over the years the stones she collected filled up the shelves of her house and spilled out into the yard and up the hill beyond, totalling thousands upon innumberable thousands of stones.
“We kneel at this museum of her commitment,” writes Greene, “… awed at its yield, even as we suspect in our secret hearts that we, too, could have done it. We’ve been known to walk up a beautiful hill. We know enough to bend when something shines and beckons. If only we’d had the time or were born in such a conducive landscape … surely we would have done the very same thing.
Perhaps Petra reminds us of what we already suspect: that the world is chockablock with untold wonders, there for the taking, ready to be uncovered at any moment if we only keep our eyes open.”
Much of Greene’s work looks at these “untold wonders” and how their story is told (or not told). And part of the thrill of working in museums, she admits, is the pleasure of being able to see and touch and turn over in her hands the secret treasures that have been stored there.
“The first museum I worked for was the Museum of Contemporary Photography [in Chicago],” she says. “I was painting touch-ups on the walls where bodies left scuff marks and putting things in frames at first, and then, in time, managing the collections and holding the keys to the vault. And it became apparent to me, with access, that the museum had things you wouldn’t know to ask for because you can’t imagine that they exist.
And so when I visited colleagues at partner institutions, I would say — “Show me the good things.” It was like I had a secret key to the club. Most people would respond, “What are you interested in?”
And I would say, “No, no, no — I’m specifically looking for the thing that hasn’t occurred to me can exist.”
Some curators and collections are reluctant to lean into the question, and don’t want to put their personal view into it, but there’s a fraction that understands immediately and says, “Come with me …”
One of the examples Greene cites from this sort of asking around behind the scenes at an Iowa natural history museum is the legendary Ivory-Billed Woodpecker of the Southeastern U.S., now believed to be extinct, the so-called “Holy Grail Bird.” In a previously published essay available on her site (akendragreene.com) called “Chilean Wild Baby Pears,” Greene tells the story of how the Iowa museum’s display model of this spectacular bird was stolen back in 1979. Fascinated herself by the bird, she puts herself in the place of the “Visitor X” who stole it. As a curator, she disapproves of such a theft, but she understands all too well the overwhelming desire to keep close something so rare and special.
“I revel in the mere possibility that at any turn we might stumble on something so stunning it takes us out of ourselves for a moment and compels us in some manner and leaves us changed — leaves us better, I hope — leaves us whole.”
Greene is an artist, and illustrated her book with dozens of charming little drawings, but she’s also a writer attuned to language, and she loves that a number of museums in Iceland collect not objects so much as stories.
They include a museum devoted to Ghosts, Elves, Trolls, and the Northern Lights, a Museum of Prophecies, and — perhaps most literary of all — the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, located in a small and particularly remote village.
The creators of this relatively new museum, including an editor for a national radio station, have over the last twenty years collected on tape thousands of stories of sightings and encounters with monsters, mostly from older people, mostly seen by the shore, the accounts of which Greene weaves into her chapter on the museum.
One such frequently-seen monster is the Shore Laddie, about the size of a pony but with short legs, covered in barnacles and seaweed, which is said to live to nudge people — especially pregnant women, for some reason — into the sea. Other sightings include the Sea Bull and the Shell Monster, about the size of a hippopotomus, covered in shells that cling to its fur and clink and rattle as it comes ashore. Another was a Sea Horse discovered dead on the shore in 1827, about the size of a seal, but with the hind legs and tail of a horse. The person who discovered it described it but dared not touch it: the next day, when he returned, the creature was gone.
Greene recounts these stories with appreciation, leaving aside her doubts. After all, a number of known facts about Iceland now known to be true (such as the existence of polar bears, or narwhals, or ambergris) were reported by early European explorers, such as a mapmaker to the King of Spain in 1585 but considered far-fetched at the time. For Greene, museums themselves are a kind of miracle of our species, an almost unconscious overachievement.
“We are going to preserve the intellectual and material and cultural history of the world through a few volunteers whom we almost universally think of as eccentric,” she says, in a tone of wonder. “There’s no plan, this is the best we can do. It seems haphazard and a little careless. Even those of us who aren’t collectors on that grand scale, by visiting exhibits and witnessing collections and telling people about them we collectively push museums into being. The museum we see is made of thousands of these little pushes. They represent something genuinely communal.”
Though Greene in her work has taken her to museums around the world, she still feels connected to Ojai. Instead of a traditional book launch, due to the pandemic, in May she had a Zoom reading and invited many of the teachers and friends she knew from attending Nordhoff, including her former art teacher Linda Taylor and English teacher Laura Bickford, who recalls teaching her from an honors class.
“Kendra was a grown-up woman with integrity and balance when I first met her,” Bickford recalls. “She was a fine writer even as a sophomore.
Some people are who they are as soon as you meet them, no matter how young; they arrive wholeborn, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
She also brought a certain kind of whimsical joy to the work. She was serious, but she wasn’t grim or sober or somber. It’s not a deadly dry academic effort she had to put forth to impress somebody, it’s the pleasure of thinking and forming thoughts and expressing them.”
While in school in Ojai, Greene came to know Matt Henriksen, who sat next to her in a homeroom and has grown up to become the maestro behind the revival at Bart’s Books. He has a handful of “Hometown Edition” copies of “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See” still on sale. This was an innovation in response to the pandemic, a way to provide a signed edition in lieu of an in-person book signing, featuring a special hand-printed bookplate with Greene’s signature.
Henriksen says Greene’s singular book has now become the bestselling new non-fiction book in the store this year, outselling Michelle Obama’s memoir.
Asked about the influence growing up in Ojai has had on her life, Greene says that it gave her an underlying belief in a place where happiness and wonder remain possible.
“I think if you’re really happy where you’re from, that molds you. You don’t think you had it good, you think there was goodness to be had. Like, if you’re from a place where the weather is good, you think that weather itself is good,” Greene says. “When you meet snow or sleet or softball-sized hail or ice that encases branches so that they clink together in the wind, you think that’s interesting, that’s good, too. So maybe if you’re from a place of happiness, you are set up for happiness. Ojai set me up nicely to follow things worth following, to trust that was worthy, and that’s been working out okay.”