Joshua Foer has made a name for himself as a freelance science journalist for various publications such as Slate.com, New York Times and the Washington Post. He is also the author of the forthcoming Moonwalking with Einstein, which documents his journey from covering the USA memory championship as a journalist, to actually competing in—and winning—both the USA and the World Memory Championships, breaking the U.S. record for memorisation along the way.
Recently, Foer founded the Atlas Obscura (www.atlasobscura.com), with friend Dylan Thuras, with the goal of cataloguing all of the singular, eccentric, bizarre, fantastical, and strange out-of-the-way places that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks and are ignored by the average tourist. The project will celebrate the first Obscura Day on Saturday March 20th, with special programmes planned for over 200 sites around the world. Among them is the Phallalogical Museum in Húsavík, Iceland. The Grapevine caught up with Foer to learn more about Obscura Day and the Atlas Obscura.
What was the inspiration behind Atlas Obscura? Did it never cross your mind to just expand Wikitravels or something? Write a Lonely Planet guide?
Well, my partner and I love these sorts of obscure places, and we think they deserve to be celebrated. The problem is that they are, by their nature, hard to find. We believe you don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon to experience wonder, or to the Smithsonian to indulge your sense of curiosity. These experiences are all around us, if you only know where to look. That’s what the Atlas Obscura is for. Just think of us as UNESCO’s weird little brother, on a mission to celebrate and hopefully help preserve the world’s lesser-known “wondrous, curious, and esoteric” spots.
Can everybody be a part of the site, create and edit articles, etc.?
Yes, yes, yes! The site is entirely user-generated. There’s no way any one person could know about all these incredible, obscure places. We depend on people all over the world sharing and writing about the curious places they know about.
Do you plan your own travels around obscure and abstract destinations? What is the most obscure destination you’ve been to?
I do. Whenever I go anywhere, I first check to see what’s nearby in the Atlas Obscura. Most obscure place I’ve been? Hard to pick, but it’s probably the Bozhou medicinal herb market in central China. You’ll never see so many barrels of dried human placentas, flying lizards, humongous millipedes, and other stomach-churning pharmaceuticals in one place.
Tell us about Obscura Day. Is there something special taking place in Iceland as a part of the celebration?
More than just cataloguing the world’s curious, uncelebrated spots, Dylan and I want to encourage folks to actually go out and explore them. That’s what we’re going to be doing en masse, all over the world, on International Obscura Day on Saturday, March 20th.
So far we’ve seeded Obscura Day with events in almost 40 cities and towns around the world. We’re getting access to private collections and museum back rooms, exploring hidden treasures, and leading expeditions to places that aren’t normally open to the public. We’re hoping to have Obscura Day happenings taking place in dozens more cities on every continent. One of the exciting places where there will be an Obscura Day tour is at the Iceland Phallological Museum in Húsavík. If anyone in Reykjavík wants to make the trek up north, I promise it’ll be worth it.
So, a phallological museum. Where does such a place rank among the world’s obscurities?
I’d say it’s right up there.
Do you see this idea translate to other body parts? Will we see the Arm and a Leg museum entry in the Atlas Obscura soon?
One of my favourites is the Nose Academy (http://atlasobscura.com/places/nose-academy) in the Museum of Student Life at Lund University in Sweden. It’s a collection of over 100 plaster casts of noses belonging to distinguished (and some not-so-distinguished) Scandinavians.
It is funny you should mention that particular place. I am living in Lund myself at the moment and I did not know about this museum until I stumbled upon it on Atlas Obscura while doing research for this interview. I guess I’ll have to go visit it now.
Definitely check it out and let me know how it is!
I can’t very well let you off the hook without answering at least one memory related question, so, what do you remember from your visit to the phallological museum? Could you recount every species represented there?
Haha, I’ve never been to the Phallological Museum. Only heard about it from friends. Perhaps I’ll visit on Obscura Day 2011.
What: Obscura Day: An international celebration of wondrous, curious and esoteric places.
When: March 20
Where: Icelandic Phallalogical Museum, Húsavik, Iceland
Go to www.phallus.is to learn more about the Phallalogical Museum of Húsavik