Excerpt from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

And Other Excursions to Iceland's Most Unusual Museums

by Kendra Greene

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene X
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by Kendra Greene
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  • Published:
    May 2020, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Some time later, in the calm of a museum café, I will be chatting with a family visiting from my homeland, and I will tell them how the local museum studies professor puts the count at 265 museums and public collections in this country of 330,000 people—how that alone would be astonishing—but remember almost all these places have been established in the last twenty years, like seeds dormant forever and then triggered at last by some great fire, some sharp snap of frost, to finally take root and bloom.

Amazing, they agree, though they sit there in the museum café, sipping their coffees, never leaving the antechamber for the exhibits within. Outside, the mist collects and recedes, gathers up and blows through, the world beyond the museum's glass wall always there but veiled, disintegrating, fading in and out of perception's reach.

And anyway it doesn't have to flood; it could spew ash. Maybe the crops die, maybe the sheep are poisoned, maybe you breathe through a washcloth and famine sparks the French Revolution.

These are old forces. The magma, and the tremors. The famine and the want. The way we love the pieces of this painfully, gloriously physical world but also the way we survive it because of the stories we fashion from its shards. We love rocks and birds and old boats and brass rings. But it's the stories. The stories are something else. We do not just keep and collect things, amass and restore them. We trouble ourselves to repurpose, create, and invent things that can carry, a little easier, those stories we cannot live without. We love enchantments and mysteries and monsters and ghosts. We love the woman on the cusp of transformation searching for her sealskin so she can return home, become again what she was before. This is what we have always held onto. This is how we lash ourselves to the mast. These are old forces—irresistible—shaping the world anew.

The Museum of Something Mumbled

There was famine. And the family determined they could save one son by sending him away. Or maybe, with one less mouth to feed, they determined they could save themselves. So they arranged for his passage to North America, a very long time on a ship. As the sailing date drew near, the boy was sick, too sick to journey—but everything was arranged and someone had to go, so they sent a different son, even younger, in his place.

Relatives in North America dutifully met the ship, but when they could not find the name of the first son on the manifest, could not find the boy they had come for and did not know to look for another, they went home again, empty-handed. It did not matter when they learned of the substitution, if they learned of the substitution. No one heard from the boy who had been sent on the ship. No one was found who claimed they had seen him. No one could determine where the lost boy had died.

Only he wasn't dead. More than a decade after that first ship had docked, he stepped off another, returning home to Iceland, intent to find a bride. In all that time he'd never written. In all that time he'd never sent word. He had scarcely more to say in the flesh: something curt and mumbled about the native people, that they should be treated better, but no further accounting of his survival, of how that starving child became a man, standing here in a buffalo coat.

I myself know nothing more of him, of his story, would not know even this except for the buffalo coat, sequestered here in a glass case as if it had stepped into a phone booth to make a call. And even this, what little I know, feels misplaced, though it turns like a key in a lock.

It feels like a story not meant for me, in part, because it hardly feels on display. It's not in the main museum but in an entry building, in a kind of hallway before temporary exhibits, at the far edge of the museum café. The coat has been given a footprint of text in its case, everything properly printed and kerned. It is a text shorter even than the story I tell here, the words in Icelandic but not echoed in another tongue, not a one of the other languages of the people who knew this man, knew the lost boy long enough for his shoulders to fill out this coat. I assume the text, too, says something curt and mumbled.

Excerpted from The Museum of Whales You Will Never See by A. Kendra Greene. Copyright © 2020 by A. Kendra Greene. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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