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
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: theisleoflewischessmen.com)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)
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!