Hey there. I’m Hannah. I’m an American museum professional and Fulbright Fellow living in Reykjavík, and I’m the host of a podcast dedicated to exploring Iceland’s museums. Why? Because Iceland has a staggering 165 museums (that’s way more museums per person than most places in the world), and most of them are fantastic places run by fascinating people who are passionate about their institutions and communities.
I launched the Museums in Strange Places podcast for anyone who loves Iceland, museums, stories, culture, and exploring the world. In each episode, I visit a different Icelandic museum to discover what stories they hold and how they reflect and shape Iceland’s unique cultural identity. If you’ve got suggestions for which museum I should visit next, send me a tweet @hannah_rfh.
Museums in Strange Places #16: The Penis Museum
I didn’t really want to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I’ve lived in Iceland almost three years, which means I’ve probably walked by it roughly ten thousand times, and not once did the penis mugs and cringey t-shirts in the gift shop window tempt me to part with my American dollars. However, having been a very un-cool homeschooler as a child and teen, I am extremely susceptible to peer pressure, and after a year of every single person who hears about my podcast asking if I am going to visit the penis museum (“It’s so awesome, you can’t miss it!”), I bowed to the will of the people.
In my podcast, each episode is usually based around an interview with a museum’s founder or a senior staff member. But I knew that my usual approach wouldn’t work in a museum where they have more publicity than they need (aka no access to the founder for me) and where interviewing a staff member would actually inhibit me from being frank about my findings. I needed a side-kick, so I asked an Icelandic friend who works in museums to visit with me. He’d never been to the museum either, so we’d chronicle our reactions together.
I probably don’t need to describe the museum to you. If you’ve been, we can probably just share a knowing look. If you haven’t, have a Google, and you’ll quickly see more than you needed to see. I mean, it’s not that I’m a prude. I love sex jokes and innuendos. And I love quirky and kitschy stores and museums. But I didn’t love the Phallological Museum.
What disappointed me about the museum was not the concept of the museum, but the execution. In theory, comparative penis study could be fascinating. In addition to making us laugh, it could make us think about how pervasive phallic imagery is in the world. It could make us think how weird it is that humans share this weird sex organ with so many animals around the world. There could be infographics on the use of the penis in the animal kingdom that would be both giggle-worthy and enlightening. The penis museum is almost none of that. Sure, there are a few pages of twelve-point Times New Roman text taped on the wall, highlighted photocopies of a penis-related scene from the great stories of the Norse gods, and a few phallic ethnographic objects from around the world. But it’s all just thrown on the wall or in display cases with little organisation and even less context.
Though the Icelandic Phallological Museum claims to be scientific and to be a center for the serious, very real, scientific discipline of phallology, it’s actually just a spectacle without substance, which, by the way, is totally ok; spectacle can be really fun. If it’s anything more, the penis museum is an exploration of male exhibitionism. Everything comes back to “man obsessed with displaying penis,” from the way the founder, Sigurður Hjartason talks about his human specimens to the items on display from Tom Mitchell. Mitchell is the American who aspires to the most pure and over-the-top expression of male exhibitionism, to have his penis removed during his lifetime so that he can see it on display in the museum; he wants to witness his own exhibitionism.
Let’s not even go into the small plastic motion-sensor flasher for sale in the gift shop who exposes himself and says dirty things to non-consenting visitors as they browse the dick pics for sale on the postcard rack.
P.S. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a Vagina Museum.
You can listen to this episode of the Museums in Strange Places podcast on the following platforms or on the player below: Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Radio Public, Libsyn, Overcast.fm, Stitcher, Castbox.
Learn more about the podcast and see other episodes here.