British Museum blog

Vikings Live: bringing our shared history to the cinema screen

Bettany HughesBettany Hughes, historian, author and broadcaster, presenter of Vikings Live from the British Museum

When you’re about to handle an archaeological artefact, interesting things happen to your body. In anticipation of the pleasure to come, your heart starts to race a little faster, the hair on the back of your neck might begin to rise, palms can become sticky. And of course there is the nagging knowledge that the security of that unique, precious – sometimes priceless – traveller in time is, physically, in your hands.

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

Vikings Live presenter Bettany Hughes

This gives the fact that we will be examining world-class Viking treasures live in front of a nationwide audience later tonight a certain piquancy. The combination of outside broadcast satellite trucks, electricians, cameramen, cables and lighting stands with 1,000-plus-year-old artefacts, is not an obvious one.

But there is form – we have done all this once before. Last year, Paul Roberts, Peter Snow, Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Gino Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and I risked the world’s first ever live broadcast from a museum exhibition, with Pompeii Live. The British Museum’s notion was that we would develop the blockbuster into a private view for those who couldn’t make it to London; or who wanted a further, in-depth look at the objects. The great thing about these ‘Lives’ is that the camera can get up close and intimately personal to the displays; plus the audience gets the VIP treatment – with world experts gathered together on the night to unravel the significance of the most intriguing pieces. There was a tsunami of support from the public for our first effort. We’ve taken on board feedback (more shots of the objects themselves and less of the presenters’ mugs!).The number of cinemas hosting Vikings Live is up by a third on Pompeii, so hopefully, fingers crossed, we’re doing something right.

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

Female burial assemblage with a pair of round brooches, chain ornaments, equal-armed brooch, pendants, arm-rings and finger rings, AD 1050 – 110. Grave C23, Kjuloholm, Kjulo, Finland. © Suomen Kansallismuseo, Helsinki

As an historian this is all truly great news: Memory matters to our species. From before the time of Homer we have chosen to join together in shared space to tell one another stories, to make sense of our world, our past and our shared futures. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the Viking story. My own fascination has always been that here in the UK we tend to think of the Vikings as OUR problem. But of course these men and women (‘Viking’ doesn’t mean a particular ethnic group but refers to an activity, vikingr, or raiding) were raiding and trading across four continents. From Kiev to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to Greenland, the Vikings meant something; they are all our ancestors. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a necklace found in a woman’s grave in Finland. Semi-precious stones from the Baltic are joined by Islamic coins – dirhams. Face to face with that bit of jewellery you can just imagine the pride of the original owner; knowing that her loved ones’ adventures across the seas in Asia or Al-Andalus connected her to a rich, cosmopolitan world.

Odin, or v&oumlaut;va figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

Odin, or volva figure, AD 800–1050, Lejre,. Zealand, Denmark, © Roskilde Museum, Roskilde

I hear that one of Neil MacGregor’s favourite objects in the exhibition is the small silver figurine of Odin, but particularly the representations of Odin’s pet ravens – Huginn and Muninn – representing Thought and Memory. The British Museum – and indeed museums across the globe – are the custodians, caretakers and communicators of our collective memories. Although slightly terrified, I can’t wait to share these with you (and the screen with my long-time hero Michael Wood (who wrote yesterday on this blog). Oh, and incidentally, honey and dried fish were top Viking dishes; maybe have those as refreshment tonight rather than popcorn: Get in that Viking mood!

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

Follow @Bettany_Hughes and @britishmuseum on Twitter

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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15 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. HSP says:

    Such a great idea!!! Pity I can’t make it to anyof the screenings!!! Bettany is one of my heroes :)

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    • Anglo-Dane says:

      It’s being repeated on (I think) June6th – check your cinemas. It is well worth it, and at 90mins 30mins too short!!

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  2. Danny says:

    It sounds like a fascinating exhibition, and such a great idea to screen it around the country. Such a shame though that it’s sponsored by BP!

    BP and other fossil fuels companies are out there lobbying governments, drilling in ever more risky locations, blocking clean energy alternatives and keeping us trapped in a fossil-fuelled death spiral to climate disaster.

    One of the ways they get away with all this is the kudos and social license they get – very cheaply – from sponsoring institutions like the British Museum (they provide less than 1% of the Museum’s annual income, according to BP’s own figures).

    It makes me deeply sad to see people who are so passionate about understanding and exploring our past helping an oil company to destroy our future.

    There’s a cheeky spoof film about BP sponsoring the Vikings here, with a petition for anyone who agrees that the British Museum should seek more ethical sources of funding in the future:

    http://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/spoof-film-mocks-bp-sponsorship-of-british-museum-vikings-exhibition/

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  3. Tom Mather says:

    Just home from the screening – a wonderful evening and a fascinating insight into our past.

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  4. Anglo-Dane says:

    We thoroughly enjoyed both the Exhibition and last night’s programme. It was so interesting and went so quickly that I wish it had been, say, 30 minutes longer! Will it be issued on DVD? I hope so!

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  5. Slow Rambler says:

    My enjoyment of last nights show was spoiled by repeated problems with the sound feed. Was that ‘problem’ unique to the venue I attended Cineworld Crawley West Sussex or with the satellite transmission affecting other venues ? Keith

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  6. I was quite disappointed in the screening last night. There is no way I could get down to London to see this fascinating exhibition. So reading the advanced advertisements I thought it would be a ‘guided tour’ of the exhibits with experts.

    What I didn’t expect was the experts and historians talking with the exhibits vaguely in the background, with only brief close ups of a few exhibits being singled out. Although I found the talks interesting and educational, the expert and historian talks, ship building techniques, beliefs and rituals of the Vikings have been done extremely well by mainstream television.

    This is a very important ground breaking exhibition with finds being displayed for the first time tying both sides of the Viking world together.

    The British Museum had a opportunity to make history last night, they didn’t take it, they chose instead to use this as a kind of trailer for the exhibition, giving the audience a taste to encourage people into the museum. And it worked in a way, I am even more upset that I will not get to see it.

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    • Slow Rambler says:

      Enjoyed your observations which (imho) are spot on. These days it is all about money and turning everything into an ‘experience’. Having an interest and the privilege of attending the exhibition and then survived the nightmare of overcrowding at the first gallery I expected (hoped) for a detailed look at the exhibits.What I got was a glossy well presented promotional film right down pretend vikings and a ship burned in the grounds.My plea to all involved is more exhibits less presenters.Dumbing down aiming for a sales is easy to understand it is not what those of us that love the British Museum expect

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      • Peter Mullins says:

        Sadly I agree with these comments. Unable to get to London, the idea that we could look round an exhibition on a large screen in my home town was thrilling – I hadn’t realised what a low proportion of the time would be given to this. I simply hadn’t expected to sit there and watch things like a panel of experts tell me, for example, that places with -by endings to their names have a Viking origin while all the while the exhibition was sitting tantalisingly largely unviewable behind it.

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  7. caroline Cochrane says:

    My husband and I went to the filmed exhibition in Dartmouth, anticipating a ‘private view’ of the exhibits explained by your wonderful group of erudite experts. Instead we saw a lot of bits of film and the celebrity presenters, and only brief tantalising glimpses of the magnificent objects themselves. I think you misunderstood your target audience,and aimed at school children, who probably learned nothing new, having done it all in school. It is a brilliant idea to let those of us unable to get to London, see your exhibitions locally, but done seriously for those of us seriously interested in the subject.

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  8. Peter Clark says:

    I agree with all those who were disappointed with the film. We were looking forward to it with great anticipation, even more than the otjher transmissions of Operas, Ballet and Plays. It failed to live up to any of the hype. A sad waste of a great opportunity

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  9. Chris Moxon says:

    I watched the live broadcast on the Vikings at our local cinema. Although they seemed to highly praised I just wondered how much they had actually contributed to western culture. There brooches and jewellery were very beautiful and of fine craftsmanship but is this very much to show for 300 to 400 years of dominating the surrounding cultures. Their culture was based on piracy and destruction. If they really destroyed Celtic Christianity in the north of Britain this was great pity and may have set back civilisation rather than advancing it. They were obviously incredibly energetic and powerful. The most precious item in the hoard apart from the ships which are obviously magnificent constructions appeared to be a silver communion bowl which had not actually been made by the Viking but stolen from elsewhere. This, no doubt, applies to other items in the exhibition. I just wondered if we were perhaps glorifying them rather too much and would be grateful for your opinion.

    Christopher Moxon

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    • Anglo-Dane says:

      I think it depends upon how you measure a contribution to culture. The lands and climate from which they came was not one which lent itself readily to the arts in the manner of the Mediterranean, and consequentially the stability which can come from an inherited written culture, including political stability, is more difficult to establish. However what they undeniably brought was Energy, and if you look at the reinvigoration of Anglo-Saxon England both by Cnut and then the Normans, plus the Norman impact upon the Mediterranean (especially Sicily) and the Holy Land, then their contribution cannot be denied, no matter how difficult to measure.

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