British Museum blog

The Vikings are here…

Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Mationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Lo, it is nearly thirty-five years since the Vikings last came to this Museum, and nobody believed that such an influx of fantastic material from overseas (as well as the UK) could be made…*

To be fair, the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend lacks some of the drama of the original Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793. We haven’t had fiery dragons in the sky (unless you count the Aurora Borealis coming unusually far south), and there hasn’t been much in the way of destruction or slaughter. Nor is it likely that this exhibition will be remembered 1200 years after the event, although in an age of globalised communication, there is no doubt that the exhibition has attracted considerably more notice in the last few days than the attack on Lindisfarne did at the time. Nevertheless, as the largest Viking exhibition in the UK for over 30 years, it has the potential to shape our definition of the Viking Age.

The attack on Lindisfarne is often used as a starting point for a period which extended until around 1050 or 1100. The defeat of the Norwegian Harald Hard-ruler (whose story is so brilliantly told in a new illustrated children’s adventure book by Project Curator Tom Williams) at Stamford Bridge near York in 1066 provides another convenient end date from an English perspective, although it doesn’t have much meaning elsewhere. The idea of a ‘Viking Age’ has formed part of modern historical perceptions since the 19th century, but the interpretation of that period, and of the Vikings themselves, has changed many times since then. One of the most memorable experiences of my own childhood was visiting the great Viking exhibition here at the British Museum in 1980. It brought together an unprecedented collection of Viking material, interpreted in line with what was then current thinking on the Vikings. Recent archaeological discoveries in Viking settlements in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia played an important part in raising public awareness of the less violent aspects of life in the Viking Age. It was an exhibition that helped to define the Vikings for a generation, and the catalogue Viking Artefacts by the guest curator James Graham-Campbell remains an essential reference for any serious study of Viking culture.

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30.  © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Mass grave from Weymouth. Exh. cat. chapter 2, fig. 30. © Dorset County Council / Oxford Archaeology

Of course, things have changed since 1980. There have been many new finds, due in part to the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the reporting of metal-detected objects. The Vale of York Hoard, for example, displayed in its entirety for the first time at the British Museum in this exhibition, was found by metal detectorists in 2004. And new material keeps on coming, with dramatic finds excavated even in the course of preparing this exhibition, necessitating rewrites and adaptations as we went along. The mass grave of Vikings found near Weymouth excavated in 2009 and the 2011 Ardnamurchan burial (the first complete example of a Viking boat burial from the British mainland) are prime examples.

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. Exh. cat. Chapter 4. fig. 3. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

Figurine, possibly a Valkyrie, c. AD 800, from Hårby, Funen, Denmark. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

A tiny three-dimensional Valkyrie amulet, found as recently as 2013, demonstrates how up-to-date the finds presented in this exhibition really are. Of course, the star of the show – the remains of Roskilde 6, the longest Viking ship ever discovered – is one of the most important and awe-inspiring Viking discoveries of recent times.

Just as important has been the impact of new research, particularly in the areas of ritual and belief and Viking-age economies. Some of this work has been pioneered by those behind the 1980 exhibition, and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to present their work and set out the state of current thinking for a new generation. As Professor Ronald Hutton astutely observed in his review in the New Statesman, the major overarching themes of the exhibition – global communication, cultural interaction and diversity, technological sophistication – are ideas with a profound significance to the modern world.

Looking back through the email trail, Vikings: Life and Legend has been over six years in the making. Apart from the challenge of delivering an engaging and informative exhibition, we have had the added issues of incorporating a 37 metre-long ship, and being the first exhibition in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, on which building had not yet even commenced when we started planning the exhibition six years ago. It has been an enormous team effort to get us here; While curators get the media attention on such occasion, the conservators, designers, loans administrators, object handlers and many other staff have equally important roles behind the scenes. The process has at times been exhilarating, exhausting, and frustrating. As Charles Dickens wrote, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and he only had to deal with two cities. This exhibition has had the added complication of being planned in three. Despite all that, we have finally reached the point where the exhibition is ready to show to the public, and it is enormously rewarding to see the positive response which we have already had from journalists and those who have seen the exhibition. If the response of the public as a whole is as positive, I think that all of us involved in the exhibition will be very satisfied. And if a single visitor is as inspired by this exhibition as the younger me was by its predecessor, then I shall personally be delighted.

*(With apologies to Alcuin of York.)

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend at the British Museum is on from 6 March to 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Vikings: life and legend, , ,

13 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Jo Woolf says:

    This sounds like an amazing exhibition – I can only imagine the planning and logistics that have gone into the preparation. If I get the chance, I will certainly come and see it!


  2. Anne Johnson says:

    We went to the exhibition this afternoon, at 4. In the first room the artefacts and display cases were much too close together, with quite a lot of reading to do, which made it incredibly congested and slow as people shuffled through so slowly. It was obvious that lots of people were getting fed-up with having to wait so long.
    Much better in the second half, where it as much more spaciously laid out. We thought £16.50 was a lot to pay for this exhibition, and even worse was the additional £4 for the audio guide (with only 50p reduction for seniors, students or unemployed )
    Enjoyed it for the £8.25 we paid (Art Fund) but would not urge friends to go if they had to pay full price.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sheila Bryant says:

    Wonderful exhibition – lots of amazing things to see.

    However…..we went yesterday and found the initial congestion described by Anne. Having all the descriptive text at hip height meant that if you were two or three people back in the scrum you couldn’t read anything, plus there wasn’t the space to move around…just talk amongst yourselves while you wait to get to the front!

    Also we found it difficult to match the descriptions with the artefacts. Items weren’t numbered, so you couldn’t tie them together that way, and the layout of the items wasn’t reflected in the text, so a certain amount of guessing took place.

    A shame because there were so many fascinating things to see.


  4. Sam says:

    Great exhibition, however not worth the money for me, I went to the British Museum after midday on a Tuesday and the sheer amount of people let in to the Viking display so close in time to each other completely ruined it for me. There were so many people shuffling through at a snails pace that half of there people there couldn’t even get a look in.

    Many great things to see however for people who are intending to pay full price I wouldn’t recommend simply due to the hour of foot treading and moaning you’d have to endure from the general public!


  5. Bruce Sharpe says:

    I agree with the comments above regarding the press of people & poor labelling.
    Bigger Bolder Well Lit, Notices above the cases would have been a useful addition.
    Why not take pointers from the Motorway signage system we use.
    My visit was as a birthday present which was memorable but not for the right reasons.


  6. John says:

    First I agree it takes a lot of time and money to put on an exhibition like this and that because of it’s exceptional nature people should pay to see it.

    What is so off putting is that one has to book what appears to be a ten minute slot to see such wonderful things without any time for thought and consideration of the objects on display.

    Making money is fine but to treat people like a commodity on a continuous production line with strict time limits shouldn’t be the purpose of such a wonderful institution as the British Museum.


  7. Malcolm says:

    Well, I went to the exhibition, and, after reading some of these blog comments, wanted to be there asap to avoid the crush. A 10am arrival time made it no easier, and the first 10yards inside the exhibition were the ‘worst’ for density of visitors; after that it eased. If the initial exhibits had been better spaced (as they were later on) more folk could have viewed each item simultaneously.

    I really enjoyed the exhibition’s contents, though with the previous coverage of all-things-Viking on national television and radio over the previous year or so, one of the few items with which I was unfamiliar was the 37metre long ship – impressive, with good associated video-displays to show what resources were required for its construction. The ‘coverage’ of the exhibition captured the height of the Viking influence as well as its transition afterwards.

    The hand-held multimedia gizmo (not free, hireable) guide and commentary to some of the items is essential imo – and excellent – though with Sandi Toksvig contributing I kept expecting an item from The News Quiz to infiltrate.

    A couple of suggestions… first that the exhibits that are in cases at the lower level of approx 4ft be raised. I appreciate that this would make it harder for wheelchair-visitors to view, but as people aren’t transparent it would enable more people to view an item simultaneously. Second, that the notes/legends for each item be duplicated and displayed at eye-level or higher, and in larger script – it was common for one person to be squinting at close quarters at the details given, which blocked others from reading or viewing.

    As an out-of-town supporting member of the BM, I was happy to see so much quality in the presentation and contents – just a few things to tweek to make it even better.


  8. Peter Williams says:

    I would have to agree with most comments. Great exhibition poor layout. It seems to me to have been laid out backwards surely it would have been better to let people into the biggest room first so they could disperse. I also agree with the comments that there should have been two descriptions per layout with one being at eye level enabling people to stand a little further back and still enjoy the exhibits.
    We travelled up and stayed overnight so we could enjoy this not a cheap thing to do and went home disappointed.


  9. Richard Green says:

    We have just attended the Vikings exhibition and our verdict is that the wonderful collection of artefacts was badly let down by the appalling detailed captions on the displays. Imagine that you had been told to design captions so that they could NOT be read by a moving crowd: you would mount them below waist level, in small or incredibly small font, in limited contrast text/background colours and ideally in shadow. Yes, you’ve guessed it…………! How on earth did the BM specify, design and approve these vital captions? In short – unprofessional.


  10. Odin says:

    I’m an Odinist working on remaking Odinism into a for-profit religion based on natural law to help win the war on poverty. I like to see these priceless treasures brought to America and used to sell high quality Vikings-inspired paintings and prints to help fund my religion’s rebirth. I’ll be very surprised if the exhibit brings in more money in Europe than can be made here in America.

    If I can be of any assistance in bringing the exhibit to Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Vikings, please contact me. There are several suitable venues here with people who’d probably jump at the chance.


  11. Ivar Hellberg says:

    A wonderful exhibition with so many different treasures from all over the Viking world. However, as has already been mentioned, the captions often could not be read as they were far too low down and were blocked by the crowds. Why not put both the displays and captions much higher so that they can be seen by everyone?


  12. generalgtony says:

    A great exhibition. My brother and i came away having learned about the themes and concepts involved in the research. We had to be patient at times to see exhibits but that is acceptable with such a popular exhibition. A brochure or guide included in the price of the ticket would have been helpful.. It took us a little while to get our bearings. Information labelling could have been more accessible in places as regards height and variety. Different labelling for children would have been useful. We decided to not to use the commentary devices. but an exhibition should be communicated in many ways not just one. This was. We both felt satisfied when we exited.


  13. leggsahoy says:

    I was enticed to visit the much vaunted display after watching a BBC Culture Show Special which started with an introduction in front of the British Museum and then went immediately to an internal shot of a full and very ornate Viking Longship as can be seen in Oslo. The program continued with elements of the ships’s reconstruction and despite humorous allusion to Scandinavian flat pack design I had the impression that the complete vessel would be on display when the exhibit opened. How very disappointing then to find a massive shiny modern steel frame and very little ship filling an otherwise dull warehouse as a reward to standing in a overcrowded entrance room where the displays were hard to see as has already been explained by these other comments with which I concur. Moreover, the description of the Ardnamurchan boat as the only complete Viking burial boat found in the UK beggars belief. It amounts to little more that a bag of rivets and a few weapons.

    If the audio guide is essential, as mentioned by Malcolm, then it should be included as part of the entrance fee but it would have been nice to have disguised the transmitters for this system so that it didn’t look like the Vikings invented baby monitors.

    As John says the exhibition is “a continuous production line with strict time limits” which simply pushes visitors as swiftly as possible into the inevitable and very expensive shop.

    If I thought I would get anywhere I would demand my money back.


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