Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Vikings: a British Museum Exhibition

Hello you lovely lot!

First off I am writing this on my phone en route to Stansted because I am flying to Denmark, hurray for technology!

In preparation for my hanging out with many Danes I recently visited the new Viking exhibition at the British Museum.

I had seen the trailer, which as you will note makes quite the claim in suggesting it will revolutionise the way you see the Vikings. Determined not to be put off by the £16 price tag I gave it a go.

watch the trailer

Treasure trove
What a collection! All the famous things are here; the Hunterston Brooch, the Cuerdale hoard and my personal favourites, the Lewis chessmen. There are literally hundreds of objects telling 'the Viking story' from beads to spears, coins and pots. The aim of the exhibition was to widen the public perspective on who the Vikings were; I'm not entirely convinced this worked.

(Lewis chessmen. Photo credit:

Roskilde 6
The central artefact for this exhibition was the remains of an astounding 37-metre long ship known as Roskilde 6. I was really impressed with this boat; and the way it was presented. So often when we work with medieval ships we're left looking at a handful of rivets, or even just the rivet holes! To see remaining planks and their position in the wider structure was amazing. I also felt the presentation of the ship; complete with videos on the building materials and the opportunity to touch modern examples of fur and wood really made a living, breathing exhibit out of something that would otherwise have been a relatively opaque artefact to the initiated.

(Roskilde 6. Photo credit: The Independent)

Packed out
In some ways this exhibition is a victim of its own success. Despite booking several weeks in advance and being allocated a booking time you really couldn't move in there! I think this might have been due to the queue jump facility allocated to BM members, but having paid my £16 I hadn't expected to queue for each cabinet.

The curators had been clear that they wanted us to come away with a broader understanding of who 'the Vikings' were. Sure, there were representations of work and leisure, faith and travel. Yet all 'the Vikings' were clubbed together without a framework of chronology or geographic locality and I felt that led the public more towards generalisation of 500yrs of history rather than less. Also I'd have liked more on the process of interpretation, something more experiential and a few less saga quotes. But perhaps most of those are satisfied in the audio guide (which cost extra) and the supporting programme of seminars.

BM at its best
In 2011 I compared the duration of 2 BM exhibits for an essay and noted then, as I do now that the BM is best at bringing us the monumental and the foreign, as opposed to the domestic and familiar. I felt the Viking exhibition was the same, showcasing the large monumental objects well but perhaps the smaller objects could have been better presented.

Coming to a cinema near you
I was encouraged to see that the BM is taking the exhibition to other museums across the country that share Viking heritage. This willingness to share resources will only win it friends moving forward. I also was pleased to see the BM take a leaf out of the National Theatre's book in taking its exhibition and seminar stream to cinema broadcasts which massively opens up the reach of these exhibitions.

Must see collection, but choose your  time carefully
It is not often that you see so many famous Viking pieces all in one place; this has been an incredibly collaborative project. It is also an amazing opportunity to see Roskilde 6, which on its own is worth the £16. But pick your visit time carefully to avoid crowds and to spend time with the precious artefacts.

I want to conclude by recognising I have experienced great privilege. I have touched several of the treasures on display first hand and studied the Vikings in great depth. I reckon my luck and privilege will have shaped my view.

They're calling my flight I better go. See you for more 'viking' and specifically Danish things soon!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

‘Oh What a Lovely War!’: The film

When I was 15 I studied ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’ for my drama GCSE. That was some 10 years ago. I remember having so many thoughts about it I filled a work book with notes and wrote an essay that was some 4 pages long. Having recently bought the DVD to celebrate the 1914 centenary I am exploring what it is about the film that I enjoy so much.

What is it?
A surreal film telling the narrative of world war one from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to ceasefire; through the medium of song and dance and using the picturesque background of Brighton coastline. It was produced in 1969 after the musical version by the same name released in 1961. The film features many actors and members of the production community that would go on to be very famous. Examples include Maggie Smith (see the video below and try to imagine her in Downton), Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, and Richard Attenborough who directed the film.

Maggie Smith on video!

The war game
The 2 main themes of this highly surreal film are war as a game and war being classist. From the opening scene filmed in a ballroom where troops are deployed on a map to all the fun of the fair as war heroes board the merry-go-round war is portrayed as a frivolity, as a game, to be enjoyed. Similarly when the soldiers are recruited the girls on stage carry lacrosse sticks as if they were rifles and offer free kisses to the first recruits. Even the losses from each battle are recorded on cricket score boards.

Belgium put the kaibosh on the kaiser (watch here)

Class is really emphasised in this film. The officers are often portrayed as buffoons, incapable of listening to reason. In one scene the officers play blind mans buff with the striking casualties from the Battle of Loos shown in the background (watch here). After a gritty scene from the front some elites in black tie are pictured ‘it doesn’t feel like Christmas’ and thinking that by not drinking German wine they were contributing to the war effort. The officers in the film never listen; when the sergeant tells his superiors that it’s a bloodbath massacre they merely laugh. When an officer visits the dugout he insists the arm of a German soldier is removed with immediate effect despite the fact it is fulfilling a structural function in supporting the trench.

The context of its creation
I think a lot of the class criticism in this film comes from the context of its creation. Picture the scene, its 1968 and the world is on fire. The US was facing daily riots about its involvement in Vietnam, it was also the year the Czechs and Poles fought for freedom from Moscow. It was the year of Martin Luther King's assassination; the Bogside, Derry revolution in Northern Ireland. All over Europe protesters were registering their objections to the government; and no better is this reflected than in 'Oh What a Lovely War!'. Obviously there are some constraints from the song subject matter, and I am sure the officers had some similarly derogatory remarks to make towards the Privates but I would suggest the stronger emphasis here comes from a generation critical of war in its contemporary politics.

What it means today
We are 100 years on. In a lot of ways trench warfare does sound like a surreal game. Musical, multi-sensory experiences like ‘Oh! What a Lovely War!’ make it easier to access the past and to understand something of what that must have been like. I was particularly struck by the amount of time the men would have been away and how that worrying that would have been; as a teenager perhaps a father left when you were 13, by the time he returns you’re 17! Or to meet someone in your late teens (like my great-grandmother) and to date at a distance to a war-zone over 4 years and hope for the best. It’s a big deal. It would be really interesting to see what a modern director given this same collection of songs would do in terms of creating a narrative that reflects life today.

You can see a selection of scenes from Oh What a Lovely War! online here; but why not buy the DVD here.