The Phallological Museum is the creation of the one-time secondary school headmaster Sigurður Hjartanson. When he was a child he was given a cattle whip made out of a bull’s penis (a “pizzle”). He must have been very proud of this possession, kept it into manhood and had it on display somewhere above the mantelpiece when his friends came over to visit, because when working as a teacher in Akranes his whaling friends began to bring him whale penises as a joke. A sort of manly, gruesome joke that requires accessibility to large sea mammals -something an Icelandic fisherman has or had – up until the International whaling commission implemented a global ban on commercial whaling in 1986. After this event Sigurður had to rummage for penises amongst the 12-16 whales that were found stranded on the Icelandic shores each year. It’s not strictly a sea mammal museum though. There’s a specimen from what is described as a ‘rogue’ polar bear found floating on ice in the West fjords, a healthy selection of farm animals and a variety of specimens from Icelandic folklore – including a merman, a sea murmurer and something known as an ‘enriching beach mouse’ – which you may like to know is a creature who draws money from the ocean to enrich her owner (the catalogue claims that they found the sea mouse penis bone on the South Coast in 1993). These folklore specimens however, are invisible so I sadly have no photo documentation to include in this post.
I was so excited about visiting this place. I love museums and I love small museums because I don’t feel immediately overwhelmed and exhausted by the Borges-esque proliferation of rooms and objects. I’m also intrigued by any institution that is the brain-child of a single enthusiast because I feel that an undiluted vision can many times generate the most interesting things. This museum space was quite small and cozy, like a living room of an eccentric yet organised neighbour.
Being in a room full of genital bits filled me with an assortment of conflicting emotions – is nausea an emotion? It didn’t feel threatening like it might have, like being the only female in a bar of leering males. It kinda felt sad. Rooms stocked full of objects devoid of life but kept. Detached penises that aren’t allowed to decompose with dignity. In this way it verged on the horrific, these giant squished fleshy shapes in tubes removed so macabrely from their original purpose. The ones with bits of skin and fur still left on.
Any museum that collects only one body-part that by necessity needs to be severed from the rest of the whole could generate this feeling of un-ease (a hand museum, or a left ear museum). But then there were moments whilst looking at a hand-carved dildo or silver penis sculptures where I felt an unexpected wave of tenderness as they brought to mind strong recollections; of sex, love, men. You know they are a sweet thing too.
This mingling of emotional reactions served to make this museum visit a fascinating experience for me. Walking from a collection of pickled sea mammals members to glass jars that held the tiny curved penis bones of the voles. So delicate and pretty that they’d been made into an attractive set of earrings, how charming. Then there was the persistent threat of dick jokes, like this one scrawled in the visitor’s book – “WE LOVE DICK” Lizzie & jessie OK.”
Enjoyably the curatorial approach seemed to be that any object is good as long as it is a phallus, or resembles one. A very egalitarian approach, the outcome of which is that the museum contains a healthy amount of objects to be baffled by. Most notably a large framed watercolour portraying a field of penises, growing side by side as if they were many strands of grass pointing proudly up to the sky. I really wasn’t sure what the artist was getting at with this one. How it had come about that they’d dreamt this up? Was it a vision that had come to them in a nightmare? Or perhaps for them it was a delicious wet dream? Was it a proposal for a public sculpture or simply a celebratory tribute? – an imagined world where dicks sprout generously from the ground.
The one human specimen was taken from a 95 year old donor from Akureyri. A bit of a ladies man apparently whose motivation for donating was his perceived “eternal fame”. The Canadian film maker Zach Math has made a documentary about the four men who have offered their penises to this museum after their death. It’s called “The Final Member“. It looks to be an interesting exploration into the motivations of the donors. Apparently one guy was eager to have his cut off before he died so that he could to visit it on display in the museum.
As I was leaving I bought a postcard in the gift shop. It’s a photograph of a small group of carved wooden penises placed in a field of grass. They are accompanied by some shot glasses and what looks like maybe a mini rug. The suggestion seems to be that the wooden penises arrived by themselves and are now in the process of a picnic. A penis picnic in the park. Or at least this is what I like to imagine.
As part of the 2012 Biennial of Sydney I saw a work called The Museum of Copulatory Organs by Maria Fernando Cardoso. Essentially this was a more sophisticated and gender balanced version of The Phallological Museum. The reproductive organs of insects were magnified and made into sculptures using different materials; bronze, porcelain etc and displayed elegantly in glass cases. The variety of shapes represented were completely enchanting and the show was an excellent fusion of natural science and art. You got to learn interesting nature facts (did you know the fruit fly has the longest sperm in the animal kingdom?) whilst looking at beautiful things.
Cardoso managed to embed years of research into an aesthetically captivating exhibition, whilst maintaining a light hearted feel. No mean feat. This said I like the Phallogical Museum better. I enjoyed the oddity and the clumsiness and the fact that it confused me. When I saw The Museum of Copulatory Organs I knew I was seeing an art exhibition, but after visiting the Phallological Museum I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d encountered.
Sigurður didn’t start collecting in order to create a museum. The museum was borne from his sustained interest in owning lots of penis like things. Evidence that if you persistently accumulate – something will happen – something will be created, and when I think of it in context with the chic Museum of Copulatory Organs it seems proof that you don’t necessarily have to create something perfect in order to create something interesting.