He’s not sure why anyone would be weirded out by what he calls the “new science” of phallology. His museum has specimens from the tiny (a hamster, at two millimeters in length) and the large (17 whale penises and counting, one measuring nearly six feet); the ordinary (as ordinary as polar bears and gorillas, anyway) and the mythical (Icelandic elf, troll, and merman phalluses are on display). He has lampshades made from bull scrotums and silver penis sculptures of the Iceland men’s handball team. He even has wooden, penis-shaped phones, mini-bars, and cutlery sets that he carved himself.
“It’s mainly Americans who are squeamish about this,” Hjartarson says over the phone from his home in Iceland. “Maybe at first people were astonished and thought that I was queer or something was wrong with me—but on the whole, it has been pretty successful and the reaction has been good.” Sure, he may be “a wee bit eccentric or whatever” (his words), but his family and the people around him have always been onboard with the collection. In fact, it was his wife, to whom he’s been married for more than fifty years, who suggested he open a museum in the first place. In 1997, twenty-three years after a teacher gave Hjartarson, then headmaster, a bull’s penis cattle whip as a joke, the Icelandic Phallological Museum opened its doors.
But among the hundreds of organs floating in formaldehyde jars and jutting out from wooden mounts on the walls, one specimen was always clearly missing from Hjartarson’s collection: a human penis.
Hjartarson, now 73, and his quest to obtain the ultimate, human addition to his museum’s collection is the subject of Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s documentary, The Final Member, which is being released in select theaters on Friday. The film follows Hjartarson and two men—one an aging, famed Icelandic playboy and the other a middle-aged, well-endowed American—in a “race” to see who gets their man bits immortalized in the museum’s vacant “human” jar. All three are wildly colorful characters, making for situations as funny—and punny—as you’d expect. (Guess what the museum’s largest specimen is? A sperm whale! And the official slogan printed on the doors? “It’s all about Dicks.”)
Guess what the museum’s largest specimen is? A sperm whale! And the official slogan printed on the doors? “It’s all about Dicks.”
The Final Member unabashedly dissects why penis talk is uncomfortable for so many: “We look at the historical record and see all kinds of variations in how much we can talk openly about penises. It’s odd that we, in the 21st century, tend to fall in a very conservative point of view,” Mitchell B. Morris, a professor of Cultural History at UCLA, says in the film. And it sympathetically conveys each character’s more universal preoccupation: All three men, above all else, just want to be remembered after they die.
95-year-old pioneer Pall Arason—the first man to organize tours to the Icelandic highlands, as well as a renowned womanizer who loved bragging about his “outstanding sexual performances”—passed away in 2011, giving his penis, testicles and scrotum dibs on the jar that is now the museum’s centerpiece. Tom Mitchell, a thrice-divorced Californian obsessed with his own penis—as in, he named it Elmo, tattooed the tip with stars and stripes, and makes costumes for it, which you can gaze upon in all their Viking, wizard, cowboy, and astronaut glory here —was understandably saddened by the news. To beat Arason to the punch, he had planned to have Elmo surgically removed, flown to Iceland, displayed in a special case he designed himself, then returned to his home during the museum’s off-season. But losing his chance to be the museum’s first human member hasn’t stopped him from pursuing a comic book deal in which his schlong stars as a flying, caped superhero.
The documentary ends with the installation of Arason’s penis, greeted with flashing cameras and a beaming Hjartarson. But Hjartarson lets on that there were a few things the film left out.
He was less than satisfied with Arason’s shriveled remains, for one. “His organ had shrunk quite a bit,” Hjartarson says. “Unfortunately, the process of preservation wasn’t successful at all.” Issues with transferring Arason’s remains into the jar of formaldehyde resulted in a gray, wrinkly, mostly unrecognizable mass. It could potentially be replaced with Hjartarson’s own penis, but that may not happen. “The problem is, I’m getting old and I’m shrinking like Mr. Arason,” he says. “So I’m not sure that my son [Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson, who took over as curator of the museum two years ago] would like me when the time comes!”
Hjartarson also admits that he doesn’t approve of the way The Final Memberultimately portrayed the acquisition of Arason’s member. “I didn’t know, and they deceived me, or went behind my back, in the way that they never told me that they would put this film up as a ‘race’ between Tom Mitchell and Mr. Arason,” he says. “There was some, well, scheming. I had got Mr. Arason’s [penis] for five months before it was announced to the public that I had got it. That was just for these filmmakers to go on with the play, or the show of some competition between Mr. Arason and Mr. Mitchell. I was not altogether happy about this, but that’s not my job. This is their film and not mine and I just hope they have some success with the film.”
Despite the problems, Hjartarson remains mostly Zen as he awaits whatever is next for the museum—whether it comes in his lifetime or not. Since the documentary was filmed, he has received offers from a German photographer, Peter Christmann, and an English TV personality, John Dower, who both are willing to donate their penises to the museum after they die. Neither is very old (Christmann is in his early 40s and Dower in his 30s), but Hjartarson is in no hurry. “We just wait and our time will come,” he says.”You never know. People die at all ages, you know? We are not stressed by this. Just keep your ears and eyes open and be quick when opportunity comes.”