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Do things stand up at the world’s only penis museum?

After exploring the Icelandic Phallological Museum, Rachel Mackay tries to get the root of the public fascination for all things phallic

Opinion
horse penises Icelandic Phallological Museum

During a recent visit to Iceland, I decided to pay a trip to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavík – the world’s only penis museum.

Elephant penis Iceland Phallological Museum
A stuffed, mounted Elephant Penis at the Phallological Museum

I had first heard of it as the inspiration for London’s Vagina Museum. Director Florence Schechter has spoken about how she heard there was a penis museum in Iceland but couldn’t find a museum dedicated to female sexual anatomy. I’ve paid a couple of visits to the Vagina Museum and purchased a fair amount of feminist jewellery from its excellent online shop, so it seemed only fair that while in Iceland I gave the penis museum a go too.

Iceland is full of quirky museums – the Museum of Icelandic Punk located in an unused Reykjavík public toilet is a particular favourite. However, the Icelandic Phallological Museum takes quirky to dangerous new heights. It regularly features on lists of the world’s weirdest museums and has sparked a variety of international reactions, from disgust and derision to hilarity.

“I wasn’t interested in collecting stamps”

The museum is the brainchild of Sigurður Hjartarson, a collector of close to 300 animal penises. His collection began in 1974 when a friend gave him a pizzle (bull’s penis) as a horsewhip. In 1997 he opened up his private collection to the public.

Sperm Whale Penis at the Phallological Museum
The museum’s largest specimen: a sperm whale penis

When asked why he has devoted his life to collecting male sex organs, Hjartarson doesn’t give much illumination, habitually replying “I wasn’t interested in collecting stamps.” i

The museum opened first in Reykjavík, then transferred temporarily to Húsavík, in the north of the country. This proximity to the whale capital of Iceland greatly increased the collection in both size and scale, as Hjartarson was able to acquire specimens from the coast and from the local Húsavík Whale Museum.

In 2011, the Phallological Museum finally transferred back to Reykjavik. Here, it remains a huge attraction for tourists, welcoming over 12,000 visitors a year.

At the re-opening ceremony in 2011, Hjartarson formally announced his retirement and handed over stewardship of the museum to his son, Hjörtur Hjartarson. He did so by taking off his bow tie and tying it around the neck of his son. It seems like a touching symbolic gesture – until you find out that the bow tie had been specially made out of the penis skin of a sperm whale. ii

Three things about the Icelandic Phallological Museum that didn’t stand up, and three things I liked

If you wrinkled your nose or rolled your eyes at that story, your face would have resembled my own for pretty much the entirety of my visit. I couldn’t tell, and I remain unsure, whether the museum was supposed to be teaching me something, making me laugh, or whether the whole thing was just an expensive vulgar graffito on a toilet wall. 

Is the Icelandic Phallological Museum a temple of toxic masculinity or the quintessential example of Icelandic quirkiness? Read on as I weigh up the pros and cons of this unique visitor attraction.

The negatives of a visit to the penis museum

1. A scientific approach?

Hjartarson has always dismissed any accusations that the museum is sexual in nature. He says: “The museum has nothing to do with erotica or pornography; it’s simply a scientific collection.” iii

I wholeheartedly agree with the first part of that statement; looking at a load of disintegrating penises in jars is about as erotic as going to the fishmongers. But I have to argue with the idea that the museum is “scientific” too. Let’s take the word ‘phallological” to begin with. If you’ve never heard that word before, you’re in good company; both my phone and computer want to auto-correct it to ‘philological,’ the closest actual real word.

Bull penises Iceland Phallological Museum
Pizzles’ or bull penises

In 1997, Hjartarson announced a new division of his museum: the Institute of Phallogy (also not a word).

Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson is an associate professor of museum studies at the University of Iceland who published an informative and entertaining book on the Phallological Museum in 2014. In it, he admits “the term ‘phallogy’ is a fabrication but it implicates that the study of phalluses is – or rather should be – an academic discipline in its own right”. iv

The penis museum – where science meets folklore

But whilst the presentation of the wet collection at the museum would be familiar to visitors of natural history museums the world over, you don’t have to look too closely to see where Hjartarson’s vision and science diverge.

For one thing, it’s not just the pickled penises of rats, hamsters, whales and deer you come to face to face with at the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Other specimens on display in the folklore section include elves, changelings, kelpies and ghosts.

deer specimens
Deer penises at the museum

Elves and ‘hidden people’ occupy a particular place even in contemporary Icelandic beliefs. Hafsteinsson writes that even “the Icelandic Road Administration, a governmental agency, has a policy that folk beliefs and the claims made by mediums regarding the presence of elves in rocks and hills must be considered”. v

What’s so surprising about the elf penis on display at the museum, however, is that it is in fact invisible. Hjartarson claims that only women of a particular sensitivity can see the specimen. Whilst Hafsteinsson celebrates the ‘agency” this gives women visitors vi, I can’t help but commiserate with the male curatorial staff on what must be an extremely challenging conservation regimen.

Folklore specimens even bear labels with made-up Latin names signifying the genus. Compare this with the Vagina Museum, which makes it its mission to clear up myths and falsehoods around female anatomy, and it’s going a little too far to call what happens in Reykjavík academic. Good fun, yes. Scientific, no.

2. Toxic masculinity seeps in

It’s very hard to walk around a penis museum and not feel like toxic masculinity has played a part. Whilst the setting and venue has a friendly, engaging tone and feels like a safe space (more on that later) the sheer proliferation of phalluses nailed to things does slightly make you question the security of the masculinity on display.

Although Hjartarson claims that his museum is divorced from sex, the connection is hard to ignore. This can be seen even beyond the specimens on display, in the lives of those involved. Hjartarson himself has a background as a translator, including “a self-help manual on how to love a woman”. vii

Today, in 2022, Hjörtur Hjartarson, who now runs the museum is described on the official website as “an experienced man.” viii

wooden penises
Wooden penises carved by Sigurður Hjartarson

Perhaps the strongest link between the collection and supposed sexual prowess comes from Páll Arason, the first donor of a human penis to the museum. It was his own, but don’t worry; he died first. According to Hafsteinsson, “After making his pledge to the museum, he became known for bragging about being a womaniser and, consequently, as a worthy specimen to put on public display at the museum”. ix

It later transpired that Arason was a Nazi sympathiser, which makes what eventually happened to his penis slightly more satisfying, though no less disgusting.

When the organ was removed from his deceased body and sent to the museum, Hjartarson admitted that the preservation process he used failed. This caused the penis to start to disintegrate. So, when the much-anticipated specimen finally went on display, the penis now resembled wet, grey mulch. x

3. Did we need more unsolicited dick pics?

Arason isn’t the only man who has thought himself museum quality. Many men send in photos of themselves, tackle out, hoping to be thought worthy of being exhibited, including one man who sent in a picture of himself pointing at the museum with his trousers down.

Many men send in photos of themselves, tackle out, hoping to be thought worthy of being exhibited, including one man who sent in a picture of himself pointing at the museum with his trousers down.

What he was pointing with is unclear, but Hafsteinsson explains that “Hjartarson is not unfamiliar with these approaches to his exhibit and some of these unsolicited pieces have indeed become part of the museum’s collection”. xi

Great. As if there aren’t enough unsolicited dick pics flying around the internet as it is, now we’re rewarding them with a spot in the penis museum.

One of the most determined potential specimens is an American man named Tom Mitchell. Mitchell has sent in numerous photographs of his little friend Elmo, wearing various different costumes, such as a cowboy. He also hopes to send Elmo to the museum one day. It should come as no surprise at this point that Elmo is, of course, Tom Mitchell’s penis. I should probably give him his full title, which is Elmo: An American Penis.

Donations to the penis museum

whale erections iceland phallological museum
Whale erections at the museum

Hafsteinsson writes that “Mitchell’s interest in the museum worthiness of his penis has bewildered Hjartarson to the extent that Hjartarson has wondered if it is right to encourage his obsession by accepting his donation”. xii

Funnily enough, as I read Mitchell’s own design for a bespoke case to hold his eventual donation, I was wondering the same thing.

The museum has certainly accepted several items of Elmo-themed memorabilia. This includes the photographs as well as a self-penned comic book featuring Elmo as a caped superhero. To quote fictional psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane, “no need for Freud there”.

However, I failed to spot the member itself on display. This leads me to believe that either Tom Mitchell is still alive, and therefore the penis is very much still in use, or indeed that the preservation process failed a second time, and that Elmo unhappily resides somewhere in the museum collection as a viscous grey paste.

The positives of a visit to the penis museum

Let’s move on from that image and dwell on happier things: three things I kind of liked.

1. Visitors love it

I love the reason Hafsteinsson gives for his interest in the Phallological Museum. When he was the director of a cultural and natural history museum in Húsavík, apparently he used to look enviously at the crowds of visitors at the penis museum: “There were people outside, either entering the museum or who had recently stepped out of it, smiling and engaged in joyful discussion”. xiii

In all that is written about ethical and educational museum objectives, often that most simple of outcomes is overlooked. Many visitors come to museums to have a good time. And it’s true that visitors seem to have a good time at the Icelandic Phallological Museum. It has four and a half stars on Trip Advisor. And I, despite my eye-rolling and worrying about the morality of Nazi penises, also, had a good time.

In all that is written about ethical and educational museum objectives, often that most simple of outcomes is overlooked. Many visitors come to museums to have a good time.

Before I visited, my slight worry was that the vibe of the museum would be a bit stag do; groups of Lads sniggering at the sign that describes an elk’s testicle size as ‘average’ and taking pictures of themselves beside the mounted members. And there was a bit of that. Yet for a venue that veritably bristles with testosterone, it felt like an incredibly safe and welcoming space.

One of my favourite things about my visit was seeing two women quietly having a beer and doing some crocheting in the museum café. It’s a calm, jovial space, and if you can knit there, it can’t be that bad.

2. Commitment to a theme

phallic door handle Phallological Museum
Phallic door handles

By far my favourite thing about the museum was its overwhelming commitment to the brand. Not only were there real penises everywhere you looked, but there also wasn’t a wayfinding sign or a utensil that had escaped a phallic transformation.

I dutifully followed penises through the exhibition, slightly gingerly opened doors with wooden dildo handles and examined exhibits with lamps made out of testicle skin. I even put my spare change into a wooden penis on the café counter labelled ‘just the tips’.

The gift shop, was, of course, a punster’s best friend. ‘This museum is not for pussies’ or ‘This museum is full of dicks’ screamed out from T-shirts. And if you could think of an item of stationery, you bet they had turned it into a penis. There was no escaping what this museum was about.

3. More humour in museums

According to Hafsteinsson, puns and jokes are the whole point of the Phallological Museum. He has commented that: “people without a sense of humour enjoy their visit less than others” xiv.

Meanwhile, Hafsteinsson goes further and posits that people should read the museum’s faux-academic approach as a parody of traditional museum practice; a sending up of those other museums where visitors don’t “engage in joyful conversation”.

tip jar iceland Phallological Mus
The tip jar at the Phallological Museum café

The museum’s pamphlet also appears to bear this out. Available only in Icelandic, this document enlightens visitors about some of the less common idioms involving phallic language. For example, “the penis rarely falls far from the root.” xv

The idioms are of course, totally made up. Hafsteinsson points to this as “an example of the way that the museum ridicules the entrenched scholarly tradition of linguistic research”. xvi

“Why does history have to seem so dead?” Hafsteinsson rages at the climax of his book. “No sex, no bullshit, no nonsense, no absurdity, no slander, no confusion, no jokes, no mockery, and no gabble?”. xvii

In a world where history is becoming so loaded and serious, where a comment on the past can start a culture war on Twitter, surely there is room for the odd knob joke?

It’s a tirade that’s hard to argue with; in a world where history is becoming so loaded and serious, where a comment on the past can start a culture war on Twitter, surely there is room for the odd knob joke?

For me, the penis museum has come to represent the very specific humour of the Icelanders, which is a curious mix of dry, blunt, confidence and charming self-deprecation. In another country, a museum like this would be too much, too blokey, too toxic. However, here, it kind of works.

Top image: a display of horse penises at the Icelandic Phallological Museum. All images credit Rachel Mackay

Sources

i Hafsteinsson, Sigurjón Baldur (2014) Phallological Museum, Reykjavík, Iceland, Lit Verlag, Zurich, p.48

ii Hafsteinsson, p.91

iii Quoted in Hafsteinsson, p.38

iv Hafsteinsson, p.77

v Hafsteinsson, p.50

vi Hafsteinsson, p.159

vii Hafsteinsson, p.59

viii Icelandic Phallological Museum (2022) The Museum, available at https://phallus.is/en/themuseum.html Accessed 21.03.2022

ix Hafsteinsson, p.95

x Hafsteinsson

xi Hafsteinsson, p.31

xii Hafsteinsson, p.32

xiii Hafsteinsson, p.2

xiv Hafsteinsson, p.116

xv Hafsteinsson, p.124

xvi Hafsteinsson, p.124

xvii Hafsteinsson, p.49

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room (therecoveryroomblog.com) to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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