Vikings – Life and Legend

5 March 2014

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As I’m sure many of you are aware, the British Museum has a new major exhibition called Vikings: Life and Legend kicking off tomorrow. This will, in fact, be their first major Viking show for over thirty years, which seems a tad surprising really when you consider the ongoing fascination with our marauding chums from across the waves. In fact, lots of us (probably including me as I am half Highlands Scot) probably have more than a dash of Viking blood flowing in our veins so I suppose you could say that they are more than a mere part of our collective cultural consciousness, but rather they ARE our culture.

However, despite all this fanfare, I didn’t actually know very much about the Vikings before I went along to the press preview yesterday morning – this despite taking classes with noted Viking expert, Dr Judith Jesch while at university – which means that my ignorance is probably inexcusable but I think the Vikings were possibly insufficiently flouncy to really hold my attention for long. I think it’s fair to say therefore that I approached the exhibition space as something of an ignoramus when it comes to Viking culture, although at least aware that they probably didn’t wear horned helmets and that they were a lot more cultured and domesticated than their savage reputation would suggest.

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I’m going to be upfront here and admit straight off the bat that I didn’t really love this exhibition as much as I expected to – probably because I went along, no doubt encouraged by the rather thrilling promotional video, expecting something really flamboyant that brought the Vikings to vivid life with perhaps room sets and smells and noises and music – perhaps a bit like the superb Jorvik in York, only with more things in cases to peer at. Okay, some people can be really weirdly snarky about what I saw referred to on a newspaper site this morning as the ‘Disneyland’ approach to museum exhibitions but, Goddamit, I LIKE to be engaged. I like drama and I like inventive exhibits that make the people of the past accessible and personable and I like STORIES. If that makes me an uncultured idiot then so be it.

That the exhibition wasn’t the way that I had expected it to be wasn’t a bad thing per se though, it’s just that I was a bit thrown by it. The rather unpleasantly cramped surroundings of the British Museum’s new Sainsbury exhibition halls didn’t help either – clearly designed to enable maximum movement around the cases, it felt a bit weirdly disjointed and uncomfortable, while the flowing from area to area, no doubt deliberately planned that way to make exhibitions feel seamless and more like a journey, in fact made it feel like we weren’t being encouraged to linger but rather get on with it and move on to the next thing.

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The exhibition features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland. It capitalises on new research and thousands of recent discoveries… to set the developments of the Viking Age in context. These new finds have changed our understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade, magic and belief and the role of the warrior in Viking society.’

Although my expectations were somewhat disappointed, there’s a lot to praise here – my interest, naturally, is rather in Viking women rather than tackling the mythology that surrounds the menfolk and I was very pleased to see so much attention paid to this aspect of their culture, with great displays of domestic articles. I also really enjoyed seeing the Vikings put into the context of their time and depicted as something more than just warlike bearded thugs. Once I had got over my initial disappointment that this wasn’t going to be a hands on sort of show and that I would be expected to do a LOT of reading to get the most out of it (be prepared for this if it isn’t your sort of thing – the Viking information on offer here isn’t being spoon fed; you’re expected to work for it), I started to enjoy myself rather more and came away feeling like I could sympathise with the Vikings a lot more, even if I still didn’t precisely want to end up in their clutches.

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Some of the artefacts on display are absolutely superb – there’s massive gold collars; huge swords that must have required a lot of muscle rippling to lift and wield them; delicate women’s jewellery (alongside plenty of rather more coarse looking glass bead pieces, which I personally found rather more attractive); sorcerer’s staffs with jangling bells at the end to add a bit of spice to their incantations; piles of silver coins recovered as part of various hoards (the Vale of York Hoard, which includes 617 coins among other things, is on display for the first time at the British Museum since it was discovered near Harrogate in 2007) and more touching intimate daily items like wooden bowls and, weirdly, tiny ear wax spoons. It all helps to make a sense of the Vikings as ordinary people, gifted at trading, amazingly bold sailors, deeply connected with their land, religiously fervent and touched with a certain strain of northern Hemisphere pragmatic melancholy that comes out in their poetry and songs.

The main attraction though, of course, is the metalwork model of a once 37 metre long Viking warship, the longest ever found and I’ll admit that it is a hugely impressive, even astonishing, sight as you get to the last room of the exhibition and see it there in front of you in all its jaw dropping glory. Up to this point all of the artefacts have been small and with a decided emphasis on domestic life and those all important Viking trading activities, which included slaving – turn a corner though and you are confronted by the physical reality of how they got their fearsome reputation and also why their culture thrived as it did and suddenly it all clicked into place and I really started to feel like perhaps I had something of a handle on the complicated Viking psyche.

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This feeling was reinforced by the final artefacts that surrounded the great ship, which focus on Viking warfare with displays of swords, grimacing skulls, helmets (without a horn in sight – future historians are going to look at photos of stag weekends and really scratch their heads over them) and finally, soberingly, the tangled skeletal remains of a group of young Viking men found executed together in a mass grave near Weymouth in Dorset – a reminder that it didn’t always go in their favour and those that they preyed upon often fought back just as violently.

I also found the stark beauty of the stone cross at the end of the last room, with its ever changing backdrop of grey sky and sea rather moving as an evocation of the deeply intense relationship between sea and religious faith that really drove the Viking psyche and culture. I stood and stared at it for a long time in fact and felt an odd fluttering of what I can only assume was a romantic connectedness with a distant, harsher time. I hate to say it but my blood definitely felt stirred with some strange long suppressed longing to jump on to a long boat sword in hand and see the world. Maybe I do have Viking blood after all? Who knows.

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In summary, if you go along to the Vikings exhibition expecting room sets, models, videos and your history served up in an invitingly sumptuous manner aided and abetted by all manner of smells, bells and noises, then you are going to be sadly disappointed. However, if you’re prepared to work for your enlightenment, have a genuine thirst to learn more about our Viking forebears and have cleared your schedule so that you have enough hours to really take the time to read everything and take it all in then I reckon you’re probably in for a bit of a treat. I noticed while there that there are audio guides on offer as well – I personally absolutely LOATHE the things as they seem to turn even the apparently most reasonable people into introspective, self centred bumbling idiots but I reckon they might actually be a good thing here when there’s so much to see and such very little obvious context on hand to help the visitor join up the dots.

Vikings: Life and Legend is on at the British Museum from tomorrow, 6th of March until the 22nd of June 2014. Normal entry is £16.50 (with all the usual range of concessions) and there’s going to be several special events too during its run – including a special Mumsnet morning for parents of small children on the 20th of May and what promises to be a spectacular live cinema event ‘Vikings Live from the British Museum’ introduced by Michael Wood (cor, I had SUCH a MAJOR EPIC CRUSH on him when I was a girl) and the exhibition curator, Gareth Williams, who spoke at the preview yesterday. There’s going to be boat burning and all manner of excitement.

(All photographs by Melanie Clegg.)

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