There is much to marvel at in the world's northernmost capital city: the early 20th century wooden houses, faced and roofed in corrugated iron painted every color from mustard to bright red; the main shopping street, Laugavegur, helpfully arched with a big sign reading "The Main Shopping Street"; the absence of heavy traffic, pollution or visible police; the restaurant menus offering dolphin carpaccio and smoked breast of puffin; the tiny liqueur glasses at the hotel buffet breakfast set out beside a large bottle of cod liver oil. (Perhaps one shouldn't be so surprised. After all, this is the birthplace of kooky chanteuse Björk.) But an even more oddball attraction lies up a narrow passage off Laugavegur: an old apartment building housing what could well be the world's only penis museum.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains 99 specimens from all but a few of the country's 40 mammal species, plus eight from other countries. There are salted, dried whales' penises mounted on wall plaques like hunting trophies, though most specimens are preserved in alcohol or formalin. A sperm whale's massive, trunk-like organ, one of 29 specimens from 12 whale species, fills a small tank, while a tiny jam jar holds the barely visible appendage of a German pygmy shrew. There is a penis bone from an Ohio skunk and some dried, tanned whale-penis skins, which can also be converted into a soft suede. Aristotle Onassis is widely reported to have had the bar stools on his yacht Christina covered in whale-penis leather.
A tanned bull's penis-like those once used as whips on some Icelandic farms-hangs beside a tube containing a smoked horse's penis. That latter delicacy is said to have been a favorite snack of early 20th century gourmand Jonas Halldorsson, who lived on Iceland's south coast. A blue whale's dried penis, though more than a meter long, appears relatively puny, considering that it comes from the world's largest creature. Sigurdur Hjartarson, the founder, curator and owner of the museum, explains that this whale was only a young fellow, not yet full-grown, and its thin brown spike represents only part of the organ: as an anatomical drawing pinned beside the exhibit shows, twice as much again is hidden inside the whale.
Hjartarson, a 58-year-old grandfather, author of history books and a teacher of history and Spanish at a Reykjavik high school, started his collection in 1974 with the bull's penis whip he had been given by a farmer in the 1950s. "These were pretty common then," he says. "But then in those days, nothing was wasted of an animal-even the bones were used for making toys or for winding wool." Over the years, his collection grew as colleagues who worked summers at a whaling factory brought him specimens. He also has contacts with marine biologists and with fishermen who let him know of any stranded dead whales or other sea mammals whose private parts may be up for grabs; last month he acquired a 1.68-m-long sperm whale penis.
There is one jar, however, that stands empty on the shelves. Hjartarson is still waiting for a human specimen. But he is not worried. He has two written offers, signed, sealed and witnessed, for posthumous donations. One is from Peter Christmann, 41, a German photographer, whose three witnesses are all married women. His photograph, taken beside a phallic-looking stone monument somewhere in Nepal, hangs beside his letter.
The other apparent bequest is from 85-year-old Pall Arason, owner of a farm on the north coast of Iceland, whose letter testifies that he formally bestows "my reproductive organs 'penis et scrotum' " to the museum. His letter is countersigned by two doctors, one of whom is apparently prepared to do the lopping. Arason, who organized the first escorted trips to Iceland's interior for tourists, is "very far from being modest," says Hjartarson, and insists that his organ be exhibited in a fitting way. According to Hjartarson, Arason has asked for it to be removed while his body is still warm to improve the prospects for having it injected and kept erect.
Like many other museums, the Icelandic Phallological has a website (www.mh.is/vefir/ phallus). It also has a gift shop, where visitors can buy such items as a skipping rope with phallic handles, a coat rack with penis-shaped pegs and a wooden hanging light with dried bull and ram scrotums for lampshades. A birchwood penis minibar that holds glasses, corkscrew and bottle, however, is not for sale-Hjartarson is too fond of it himself-and neither are the bow ties in soft whale-penis leather. Indeed, Hjartarson doesn't like selling too many of the museum's wares. It takes him so long to make them that he keeps the prices high-lamps are $68 and skipping ropes $26.
Last year, the museum attracted 3,500 visitors, and Hjartarson says he enjoys his role as curator. "I'm essentially very conventional but I enjoy being a bit provocative," he says. Half serious, half tongue-in-cheek, his unique collection undoubtedly fills a void in the museum world.