British Museum blog

Vikings Live on the horizon

Michael WoodMichael Wood, historian and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

Hotfoot back from Shanghai where I am filming The Story of China, and now very excited about tomorrow night at the British Museum! We had a production meeting yesterday going through the script and suddenly the spine-tingling ‘liveness’ of it all felt very immediate. Vikings Live is now really coming together, with a series of very exciting scenes and a team of terrific contributors. Gareth, the exhibition curator, will even be sweltering in full Viking war-gear to explain the ethos of a warrior society. A string of inspiring experts will be your guides through the glitter and violence of the age, led by everybody’s favourite museum director / magician, Neil MacGregor, who has now turned his hand to A History of the Viking World in a Thousand Objects!

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

Vikings Live presenters, from left: Michael Wood, Bettany Hughes and Gareth Williams

The British Museum has gathered some really amazing things together for this thrilling exhibition about the turbulent and spacious Viking epoch that extended roughly from the 750s to around 1100. Tomorrow night the cinema audience will be getting privileged close-up access to some wonderful artefacts: designer sword blades, fabulous gold torcs (neck-rings), looted treasure and a jaw-dropping display of headless skeletons of Vikings executed near Weymouth during the disastrous reign of Ethelred the Unready (979–1016) when the Danes conquered England.

An intimate detail? The piece that caught my eye (and I’ll be talking to Gareth about it tomorrow night) is a severed skull with filed teeth that were once coloured. An Arab account of Vikings on the Caspian Sea describes them tattooed and even wearing make-up – the men as well as the women. With their bling and braided hair they were definitely making a statement: Pirates of the Caribbean goes Viking?

At the heart of the exhibition is the wreck of the longest Viking ship ever found – sunk in Roskilde in around 1025, it was discovered in 1996. Only the lower part of the original boat survives, but the elegant curving steel frame over 120-feet long is a staggering sight, which will be explored with dramatic crane shots tomorrow night. Clinker-built, slim and very flexible, such ships travelled west to Greenland, south to Morocco and east to the Caspian Sea: there are even Viking graffiti on the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Going further west, there was even a permanent Viking settlement in Newfoundland, and for all we know, some inquisitive summer voyager coasted down the shores of New England. Our own pirate explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher would certainly have seen them as kindred spirits.

And what about the Vikings themselves? As you’ll see tomorrow night they had a very dark sense of humour – but they also had a very down-to-earth view of life which reminds me a lot of the kind of humour you can still hear in the Yorkshire Dales or the Cumbrian Fells: and not all of it in jest… Take these sample Viking ‘thoughts for the day’ from the famous wisdom text, the Havamal:

Don’t trust a blade until you have tested it in battle.
Don’t trust ice until you have walked across it
Don’t trust your wife until you’ve buried her….

No new men there then!

So there you are: courageous practical, realistic, cruel, curious – the Viking spirit took them across the western world between 750s and the late 11th century. That amazing age is our subject tomorrow night – experts and enthusiasts all. Speaking personally, I must say I am looking forward very much to presenting Vikings Live with Bettany Hughes, who I have known for years, but it’s the first time we have done an event together. What a time!

Michael Wood is one of the presenters of Vikings Live, at cinemas around the UK on Thursday 24 April.
Supported by BP

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 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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6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Mr R M Terry says:

    Visited the exhibition today. It is the worst organized that I have ever been to. Far too many people. Could not get near exhibits. When I could the narratives were placed so low that for someone like me who wears reading glasses, I spent most of my time bending or kneeling to read them. Overcrowding compounded by people with audio guides who would not leave a case until their guide had stopped talking. Lasted 1 hour in which I saw about 25% of the exhibits and gave up. A complete waste of my morning. British Museum get your act together and refund our money. Try visiting the Wallace Collection and see how its done properly!


    • Dear Mr Terry, I have passed your comment on to our official Feedback channel ( so you can expect a response from them. Yours, Matthew, British Museum web team.


  2. fungalspore says:

    Too many adjectives here. Oh dear.


  3. A. Pickering says:

    Oh dear :( Coming to see the exhibition next week and making a special trip from Leeds. Hope Mr Terry isn’t correct.


  4. Slow Rambler says:

    Completely identify with Mr Terry
    British Museum should be ashamed of the hype associated with the exhibition.
    The centerpiece of the promotion is a ‘viking ship’
    It is not a ‘viking ship’ it is an enormous metal cage supporting the timbers of a ‘viking ship’
    The metal cage gobbles up an huge amount of exhibition space that would be better employed displaying exhibition objects so visitors can actually see them.
    Everything these days is about making money,’presentation’ giving visitors an ‘experience’
    The Sainsbury Gallery is a stunning addition to the British Museum but its use for this exhibition is appalling.
    Visitors (a multitude) are shoehorned into the exhibition where the early exhibits are simply unviewable because of all the pushing and shoving by the mass of visitors.
    There is an improvement by the time you reach the star of the exhibition the ‘viking ship’.
    The last straw for me was the promise offered by the British Museum of a live feed to cinema screens Thursday evening (24/4).
    Great I thought at last I will be able to see the objects properly.
    Did I ?
    No I did not
    What I saw was a glossy ‘presentation’ expensively mounted right down to pretend vikings and the burning of a pretend Viking vessel in the grounds of the Museum.
    All about presenters,presentation and just the occasional look at an object
    The British Museum trying to give its audience an experience or as I believe dumbing down.
    I love the British Museum and have thoroughly enjoyed all the previous exhibitions I have attended.
    I left each and every one of those enriched
    I left this one enraged and Thursday evening was the last straw..
    This is not an old mans rant (though I accept it probably reads that way) just a plea to the British Museum to think again.


  5. Sarah says:

    I saw the live broadcast and loved it. Please keep them coming! Is there any information on the music that was used?


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