Gareth Williams, Exhibition Curator, British Museum
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.
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.
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.)