The Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortellius proposed four centuries ago that Europe, Africa and the Americas were once united, but had been torn asunder by a faultline down the Atlantic – a line that passes through Iceland. A Kendra Greene, an American artist and printmaker, is fascinated by the idea of those sprawling tectonic plates. Iceland “rose up from these waters in the first place precisely because of those plates, their penchant to slip and grind and spill their molten heart”. The island is its own centre, a place geologically and culturally unique, but Greene is from Boston and to her it feels like an edge. “Not just here but always, something happens at the edges,” she writes. No other country has so many small museums, 265 by her count, in a nation of 330,000 and her book is an exploration of the “territory staked out under the name ‘museum’”. She’s interested in what museums mean, as well as what they might become.
She opens with the Phallological museum in Reykjavik, where 212 penises from Icelandic animal species are exhibited (Homo sapiens included). “It’s a museum about a word,” she says, “a word charged and freighted in ways that so often have nothing to do with the biology of the thing it names.” With each chapter Greene circles around her subject as if viewing it in a vitrine, approaching it from different angles, changing her register and voice. The book is shot through with glee and irreverence: “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 endeavouring to preserve a pound of flesh.”
The chapters alternate between “Gallery” and “Cabinet”, each a different way of approaching one museum, or one aspect of Iceland’s collecting culture. With an architectural historian friend she debates the fine distinctions between a museum, a collection, and a hoard: “Hoarding is not curating, she said. Sheer mass does not make a museum.” For her the success or failure of museums pivot on how successful they are at fashioning narratives – they are places where collections are given a story.
In the geologist’s paradise of east Iceland she visits Stö∂varfjör∂ur, once the home of Petra Sveinsdottír, obsessive collector of stones. Greene describes seams of jasper, onyx, opal, agate and amethyst in the mountains around the town, as well as the fossils of deer from an age when the east of Iceland was continuous with Scotland. Petra’s “bookshelves filled and the curio cabinets filled and Petra bought new bookshelves and those filled up, too”. In the end the stones spilled out into the garden “a reverse avalanche, unspooling in slow motion, rock by rock”. For Greene, Petra’s collection of rocks is a reminder that for those able to keep their eyes open, the world is sown with wonders.
On Iceland’s north coast Greene visits a museum of the herring fisheries that once dominated Iceland’s economy, and is swept up in wistful melancholy for all those places history has abandoned, a melancholy that is deepened by the timing of her visit – late November – when the sun sets behind a southern mountain and will not re-emerge for weeks. The local people gather to watch it set, passing out oranges to eat as if to remind themselves of the sweetness and colour of the sun. Greene wishes she could stay on through the darkness rather than return to the US; for her, Iceland is like a family, and her book is in the end an attempt to capture, cradle and cherish Icelandic culture, and make herself feel more a part of that family.
Birds, polar bears, whales, sorcery – her celebration takes all of them into its exuberant, idiosyncratic enthusiasm
In the museum of sorcery she is stopped short by the spells of Icelandic folklore, surprised by how many of them concern love magic: “Sure, to make a horse go lame or to win at playing cards or to calm anger or to call up a northern blizzard, but it’s probably to get a woman.” In another chapter, she explains how the museum of sea monsters gathered its story “exhibits”: one of its founders phoned every care home in Iceland and asked the elderly residents to comb through their memories for any legends or folk tales about monstrous visitations from the sea. She ponders whether a museum, to be a museum, has to have a physical collection to exhibit.
But Greene doesn’t offer much of a conclusion – she just enjoys the museum of sea monsters for the eccentric unlikelihood of the place. Birds, polar bears, whales, sorcery – all are equally of value, and her celebration of Iceland’s museums takes all of them into its cabinet of wonders, its exuberant, idiosyncratic enthusiasm. Greene’s mind doesn’t move in lines, either curved or straight, but in weaves and knots, new threads radiating from each tangle of concepts. Her tone is delightfully looping, oracular, faux naif; The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is work not of cataloguing and curating, but of longing and love.
• Gavin Francis will discuss his new book, Island Dreams, at the online Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August; it will be published in October by Canongate. The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is out from Granta (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.