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BOOK REVIEW

Worlds of wonder in ‘The Louvre’ and ‘The Museum of Whales You Will Never See’

Two books look at what makes museums magical

“The Museum of Whales You Will Never See" looks at oddball collections in Iceland. “The Louvre:" traces the 800-year history of an institution that’s synonymous with the very word “museum.”
“The Museum of Whales You Will Never See" looks at oddball collections in Iceland. “The Louvre:" traces the 800-year history of an institution that’s synonymous with the very word “museum.”Isabelle Cardinal for the Boston Globe

If ever there were a good time for a little vicarious museum-going, this is it. Many museums, of course, have put their collections online for perusal. But another way of wandering the galleries is to succumb to these two wildly different books.

James Gardner’s “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” traces the 800-year history of an institution that’s synonymous with the very word “museum.” A. Kendra Greene, on the other hand, introduces us to oddball collections likely to be completely off your radar in “The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums.”

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Gardner’s book will be an eye-opener to some readers (I’m one of them) who take the Louvre for granted as a semi-eternal and unchanging part of Paris’s cultural furniture. Just the fact that it first opened its doors as a public art museum smack in the middle of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror may be news to you. But the surprises don’t stop there.

“Before the Louvre was a museum,” Gardner writes, “it was a palace, and before that a fortress, and before that a plot of earth much like any other.”

The area where the museum now stands was known as “the Louvre” long before the first building was erected there, but no one can agree on what the word might have meant. The transformations the site has seen over the centuries, however, are well documented, thanks partly to the archives and partly to archeological digs in the 1860s and 1980s.

The fortress was built late in the 12th century as a defense against the English and lay just outside the city’s western walls at the time. After the English threat diminished, the fortress accommodated France’s royal treasury, a jail for “prisoners of rank,” and a crossbow-manufacturing facility. It also served as a venue for jousting tournaments.

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In the late 14th century, Charles V rebuilt the fortress as a castle-like palace, which in turn was razed in 1660 (a splendid illuminated-manuscript painting of it from 1414 survives, though). The buildings that replaced it over the centuries went through periods of neglect, renovation, and expansion, depending on who the ruling monarch was at the time.

In recounting this history, Gardner makes every phase and transformation vivid. He reminds us that as recently as the early 19th century, you could step out of the Grande Galerie and find yourself “standing on a steep and irregular sandy beach” that descended to the waters of the Seine.

Gardner’s minutiae on architectural detail can be dense going at times, but the human stories and accounts of art acquisitions he digs up are fascinating. Many of the museum’s most cherished holdings by French artists, he notes, were painted in the Louvre itself when portions of the building were home to artists’ studios.

One of the most unusual things about the museum’s opening during the Reign of Terror, Gardner notes, was the “curious continuity between the cultural ambitions of the ancien régime and those of the revolutionary order that replaced it. … [A]ll sides appear to have been in general agreement regarding the future of art and especially of the Louvre as an art museum.” The same proved true in the Napoleonic era and those that followed it, however radical or bloody the changes of regime were.

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Gardner helps readers keep France’s tangled royal and republican lines of succession clear by always contextualizing key figures as needed, and his daunting cultural erudition is equally user-friendly. His writing is shrewd and witty, and even catty when it comes to architectural “improvements” that draw his displeasure. Anyone curious about how the Louvre evolved into its present configuration will find this diligent book richly informative.

Greene’s “The Museum of Whales You’ll Never See” is an entirely different animal. It’s as much a fanciful literary experiment as a sober-minded overview of the Icelandic museum scene. Its delightful eccentricities, however, deliver a ton of solid information on Icelandic history and the Icelandic spirit.

Greene starts off, unsurprisingly, with the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which famously bills itself as the only “penis museum” in the world. Like many of the museums Greene writes about, it started out as someone’s pet project.

Founder Sigurđur Hjartarson was working as a secondary schoolteacher in southern Iceland in 1974 when one of his pupils’ parents gave him a “pizzle” (“a wizened, dried bull’s penis being used as a whip,” Greene helpfully explains). From there, Hjartarson’s collection gradually expanded to 212 specimens. The more publicity it got, the more donations he received — whale penises, goat penises, Greenlandic seal penises — until he felt compelled to open a display space for them.

Greene tracks down similar stories behind such small-time tourist attractions as Petra’s Stone Collection, Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum, the Herring Era Museum, and the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft (where the biggest challenge was “how to display what can’t be seen”). Most of these are located in far-flung regions of Iceland, and in several instances they represent a desperate attempt to keep small, economically pinched towns alive. The Herring Era Museum, for instance, got its start after the herring catch, which had reliably sustained the fishing port of Siglufjörđur for more than 60 years, abruptly disappeared in 1969.

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Greene’s heady, lyrical, elliptical prose digs deep into the human urge to collect things. The book also delivers deep formal pleasures as it alternates between “cabinets” (mini-essays on, say, the Museum of Icelandic Polar Bears or a more fanciful “Museum of Darkness”) and “galleries” (longer investigative reports on the museums mentioned above).

Greene is savvy about the way “a private place becomes public by degrees.” Petra’s Stone Collection, for instance, only started charging admission when it became necessary to build a public toilet for all the visitors that tour buses brought her way.

Greene, like Gardner, notes that countries in the 18th and 19th centuries looked to museum-building as a way to “consolidate their national identities.” And of course evoking a sense of wonder is part of these institutions’ mission too.

“You want to be surprised?” Greene asks. “You get yourself to a museum.” These two fine books help you do just that.

THE LOUVRE: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum

By James Gardner

Atlantic Monthly Press, 394 pp., $30

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THE MUSEUM OF WHALES YOU WILL NEVER SEE: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums

By A. Kendra Greene

Penguin, 252 pp., $22

Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.