In keeping with the current tradition of massive blockbusters such as Shakespeare: Staging the World and Pompeii the British Museum have unleashed their latest must-see exhibition: Vikings: Life and Legend.
This is the first major exhibition about the Vikings at the British Museum since 1980 when this joyous thing happened.
I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition since it was announced ages ago. As a youngling I devoured tales of Thor, Odin and Loki so my expectations were sky-high for this show. Even it being framed as an exercise in academic debunking didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.
I wanted to like it, I really, really did. I spent a lot of time afterwards trying to persuade myself that it was more than just ‘meh.’
It’s not quite the “disaster, deathly dull” mess that eternal grump Brian Sewell declares it to be (does that man like anything?) but neither is it… well… as exciting as it should be.
Come on, these are the VIKINGS! VICIOUS VIKINGS! Those invading marauders who come from over the sea to rape our women and pillage and plunder our villages! OK, I concede that may not necessarily have been the case but you have to work exceptionally hard to make such vibrant source material somewhat dry.
So much grey
My first thought upon stepping across the threshold of the brand spanking new exhibition space was “There’s a lot of grey here.” A thought I could ponder on at length as the vast queue of visitors, coiling around the objects, undulating slowly, like a human version of Jormungand the Midgard Serpent as folk step from one artefact to another.
Breaking away from the crowd to have a look at a charming yet completely ignored object I overheard a muttered “There’s someone not staying in the queue. That simply isn’t done.” I don’t think of myself as an intrepid museum explorer for nothing you know, also, FREE YOURSELF FROM THE SHACKLES OF THE PRESCRIBED ROUTE. Immerse yourself in what catches your eye, then get back to trudging through the things you feel like you have to see.
The colour scheme was rather distracting, I still couldn’t help but wonder “No really, why all the grey?” The museum may have gone for some daring choices in backing boards for the (very traditional) displays, but there was still so much grey. Although the Reading Room wasn’t an ideal exhibition space, at least it had character. The new space put me in mind of my infamous trip to the notorious Nuclear Bunker museum.
The Vikings Cometh
The Vikings have arrived, there is no doubt about it. What have they arrived in? A warship, naturally.
Measuring a massive 37 meters, this longboat commanded the space in the room, which is only fitting as it’s the first time something like this has been seen in the UK.
Like this anyway.
I imagine at some point, seeing a complete ship like this would have been kind of commonplace.
Although only 20% of the original timber remains, it only takes a little imagination to add flesh to the skeleton and people it with raiders ready to plunder and pillage. The disembodied voice reciting some Scandinavian sagas (?- I think, if I was in charge that’s what I would have) helped to create the scene.
Part of what worked for me about this exhibition was that you had to do some work. Things weren’t just spoon fed, you were invited to fill in the gaps and flesh out what was in front of you. Sometimes quite literally.
I present my favourite part of the whole exhibition. The Viking helmet with a jawbone. A helmet on neither a mannequin head, nor a skull, but displayed with a jawbone. Why couldn’t the rest of the exhibition match this?
This was a close second.
The pop of colour was a tonic to the dark industrial grey, but the impact was dimmed by the revelation that it was a replica. Usually I love replicas, like these statues, but somehow, it felt like cheating here. We could see a small photograph of the original, but no explanation as to why that couldn’t be here.
Vikings: Life and Legend was presented as a way to dispel the myths about this group of people. I’m not convinced this worked. I heard a father question his son about the most commonly held of these beliefs.
“But Dad,” came the boy’s exasperated reply, “they didn’t have horns on their helmets.”
So, who is it that needs re-educating?
Vikings: Life and Legend, I tried so desperately to like you, I really did. But at £16.50 a ticket (no, really) you might be better off waiting until the museum’s permanent Viking galleries reopen on the 27th March.
If you want to see some Viking-themed badges, you can head on over to the Museum of Museum Badges.