A Life’s Work: Wild Life Preserve

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WildLife: A Life's Work by Ross Martin

It’s hard not to have a favorite segment of our new HBO television special, Downloading Sex. After nearly a year of production, mine’s still our trip to The Icelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavik, which boasts a collection of 140 specimens from the forty-one different species of mammals indigenous to the region. The only kind of penis the museum doesn’t have? A human one. Fortunately for us all, Sigurdur “Sig” Hjartson, founder and director of the museum, has found a human donor named Páll Arason, a famous retired Icelandic explorer and infamous ladies man. As Sig points out, “There are many, many women who know this specimen personally.” Sig himself has become quite infamous. A high school teacher of history and Spanish, he spends his free time hauling sperm whale penises down from the north in the trunk of his Dodge, a noble life’s work, for sure.

Ross Martin

Ross Martin: You’re a bona fide penis historian?


Sigurdur Hjartson: My specialty is the history of Latin America. But “penis historian,” well, okay, I can face that. I’m just a collector of penises, you know?

RM: How did this all start?

SH: I was living in a small town nearby Reykjavik, where I was a headmaster in a secondary school, and nearby was a whaling station in operation until the international ban on whaling. Some of my colleagues were working there during summer vacations, and they started bringing me penises from that whaling station, you know? And then the idea developed.

RM: Tell me about your penises.

SH: My first specimen is from 1974. When I opened the museum in August 1997, I opened it with sixty-three specimens. But I’ve been very industrious in collecting.

RM: That first specimen was . . .

SH: A bull’s penis, tanned in a tanning factory. When I was a kid and sent into the countryside for summer vacations, we’d get something like that and use it as a whip.

RM: What qualifies as a worthy specimen?

SH: The best thing is to get it complete, whole: the penis with the testicles and sperm and all the things. It’s different from one species to another, you know? When big whales die, the penis leaks out because there’s a special muscle to keep it in when it’s alive. The biggest specimen I got —

RM: — the mighty sperm whale. My favorite. We feature it in the Nerve show.

SH: Yeah, it’s 170 centimeters and weighing something like seventy-five kilos. And that’s only the part that leaks out. Which is only about one third of the weight.

RM: How did you transport such a thing?

SH: We went to the north where the whale was stranded and just took it in our car, which is a Dodge from America. Just put it in the boot [the trunk].

RM: So you do your own butchering?

SH: Generally not. But I go sometimes to take the penises off whales.

RM: How do you preserve the penises?

SH: Various manners. I dry them, I empty them, I preserve the skin. I use the scrotum skins of bulls and rams and I expand them and dry them and use them for cantilevers or lampshades and so on.

RM: Of all things, for the love of God, why the penis, Sig?

SH: The penis has been the subject of jokes in every culture for thousands of years; it has been a matter of admiration or envy or whatever, a part of discussion and reflection and inhibition.

RM: Where did you get the word “Phallological”?

SH: I made it up myself.

RM: What do your children and grandchildren think of your life’s work?

SH: My wife has supported me, my kids as well, and my grandchildren — they like it! Two of them are living in Britain and they are writing theses about the collection of their grandfather. They don’t feel ashamed of it.

RM: Who visits your museum?

SH: All kinds of people, all ages. Almost seventy percent of my visitors last year were foreigners. I got 5,300 visitors last year. There is an admission fee of 400 kronos, which is about four dollars.

RM: Are there class trips from your school?

SH: Yeah, from my school and others.

RM: Were you ever afraid people would be intimidated by all your penises?

SH: We are a pretty liberated people here in Iceland. It’s a collection of organs, just like a collection of stamps or coins.

RM: Is the museum supported by the Icelandic government?

SH: No, but I’ve got some grants from the city council, something like $2500 last year.

RM: One time you visited with Iceland’s Prime Minister. What happened?

SH: He was the Minister of Communication and Tourism. I got an interview with him one morning, the shortest interview in the history of Icelandic independence since 1904. It lasted fourteen or fifteen seconds, then he stood up and ushered me out.

RM: Is there a vagina museum?

SH: I’m only collecting the male organ. Somebody else has to do the other job. I’d be interested in how they would preserve it. I think vaginas are better alive.

RM: I agree with you. Does your museum have a gift shop?

SH: Yes, there are a few things I’ve carved myself. I make salt and pepper shakers, phones, skipping ropes for women of all ages, barbeque skewers . . .

RM: All with penis handles?

SH: Exactly. Tees for golf, toilet paper holders, towel holders.

RM: Páll Arason, who has decided to donate his penis to your museum when he dies, has become a big star of our show. How’d you come to know him?

SH: He was pointed out to me as a possible donor. He’s a famous man in Iceland and a famous womanizer, and he reacted favorably. We have been in good contact since; we talk; I visit him when I go to the north.

RM: Páll’s now in his mid-eighties. How’s he doing?

SH: Oh, yeah. Keeping pretty strong. He doesn’t smoke, and he takes one small drink every midday, around lunch, just one and nothing more. He keeps himself in good shape both horizontally and vertically.

RM: How would you like Iceland to remember you, Sig?

SH: It’s a difficult question. I’m a historian. I’ve written some books on Latin American history, and I have translated a number of books. I’ve been trying to inform Icelanders about Latin America. I’ve been a happy teacher for thirty years. And I am the director of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

RM: But you’re not planning on donating your penis.

SH: Yes, of course I will! Why should I bury it with me?

RM: Do you have any special plans to decorate it?

SH: I’ll blow it up a bit, which is what Páll Arason is going to do; we’ll inject it to expand or raise it when he dies. You wouldn’t be happy being kept flaccid. You’d like to be raised with some dignity!

RM: Yes, I would, Sig. Yes, I would.


Ross Martin’s recent work appears in magazines such as Agni, Bomb, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Witness and others. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, The New School University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book, ‘The Cop Who Rides Alone,’ is published by Zoo Press (

© 2000 Ross Martin and, Inc.