“Well now, don’t that just beat the band!” I could hear my father’s voice uttering this midwesternism as I learned of a museum in Iceland, The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it exhibits phalluses. This museum claims to be the “only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in a single country.”
That expression was one my father used when learning of something amazing, outrageous or ridiculous upon reading about it in a newspaper or magazine. A friend of mine had alerted me to an article in “Slate,” the online news publication, titled “The Penises of the Icelandic Handball Team.” It is about a sculpture exhibited at this museum, fifteen sculpted metal phalluses, of different lengths (heights), each leaning at a slightly different angle from the vertical, encased in a plexiglass case. It is positioned under a large photograph of the manly 2008 handball team. I guess my dad’s expression is about as good a rejoinder as any, other than “WTF?” Which, under the circumstances, would be an unintended pun.
Anyone who has read more than one of my essays knows I am not a prude. So I am not really grossed out. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised either — well OK, I’m moderately surprised. The human race appears to have no end of “treats” in store for us. You have only to be moderately alert on any given day to learn something amazing. But, I have to admit, this is slightly more surprising than some things that have come to my attention recently.
Many of us have been on road trips, or have flipped through the pages of travel magazines, or the Auto Club’s Westways magazine, or watched the travel channel on TV and have become aware of unusual museums — from Amsterdam’s Sex Museum, Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in New Delhi, Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, the Dog Collar Museum in Leeds Castle, Maidstone (outside London), the National Museum of Funeral History, and The Fan Museum in London, the Beijing Tap Water Museum, to the British Lawnmower Museum (Merseyside, England), to name only a few.
I myself have visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street in London which has been furnished as the apartment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective and his friend Doctor Watson. The museum features Victorian bric-a-brac and furnishings, some Meerschaum pipes and tobaccos, a Deerstalker cap and a cape, a syringe on a desk (remember Holmes was an addict), and a popular gift shop selling Sherlock Holmes collectibles and novelty items. It is quite amazing considering the honoree was not a real person. I even have a photo of myself standing outside the museum, next to the sign. And I also visited the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, London. It features old buses and train cars and a complete history of the London underground/subway, including old photos of the various stages of the digging, excavation and building of the lines. Very interesting, historically. And it had a great gift shop too. It was even worth fighting through the hordes of children who were there on school field trips.
I remember too a museum I visited in Cologne, Germany many years ago – Das Römisch-Germanische Museum (the Roman-German Museum). I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember a prodigious display of little statuettes of the God Priapus, the Roman God of Lust and Fertility, all with very large, erect penises. And there were some phallic images displayed in the brothels of Pompeii, as I recall. There were also some phallic statues on Delos, the Greek Isle. Unfortunately, the shafts had been sheared off the sculptures by pillagers, but enough remains that you can tell what was once there. These too were fertility symbols. So this fascination with the male body dates back to ancient times. And of course there is the very famous Michaelangelo’s David in Florence.
But to get back to the museum in Iceland. Makes me wonder what might be next —a sculpture of certain body parts of the women of the US Soccer Team, or US Women’s Gymnastic Team, now that they’ve performed so well at the 2012 Olympics? Or the women’s beach volleyball team? Ouch! When does art cross over into porn, or just plain bad taste? I’m not the first person to ask that question. Now and then you hear about protests regarding the displays of certain art works that have sparked controversy, especially in certain museums of modern art. Sometimes such controversial works feature religious objects interspersed with garbage or other distasteful materials. Or religious icons juxtaposed with weapons or militaria or armaments. I’m not in favor of censoring art, but now and then I have had to ask myself about certain items I’ve viewed, especially in such places as the Tate Modern in London. I admire innovation, but I have to admit that sometimes I’m just plain baffled. Some art makes a statement, and sometimes the statement is a raspberry.
I’ve told the story more than once about my one time visit to the Los Angeles MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). I wandered into what appeared to be a well-lit empty room. I assumed that they were in the process of changing out a touring exhibit, and so the space was in transition. As I was leaving the room after stepping a few feet in, a guard stationed by the door whispered “it’s a light sculpture.” Silly me! Just another visiting Philistine. This is where a sarcasm font would come in handy. I slunk over to another exhibit in a humble demeanor. I felt I should wear a T-shirt that said “I flunked art appreciation.” And the shirt should have had a sarcasm font too.
After several hours of contemplation, I’ve decided that maybe it is only fair, in this age of emancipated womanhood, that women get to view the male anatomy in all its glory as art. I mean, for years, the female nude has been shown in sculptures and paintings in every age and era, as either a symbol of the erotic or the beautiful and yet the male parts have been hidden by loin cloths, drapes, fig leaves or vining tendrils of one sort or other from Adam up through the Renaissance. Men have been able to saunter through galleries for generations and salivate and titter and make tawdry remarks and cheap jokes. So ladies, now it is our turn. Let’s hear it for liberation! It’s a victory hard-won – oops, was that a pun?