Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum

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.

Viking longboat at the British Museum
Viking longboat at the British Museum

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.

viking helmet and jawbone (c) Alex Lentati
viking helmet and jawbone (c) Alex Lentati

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.

Harald Bluetooth rune stone (c) Rebecca Reid
Harald Bluetooth rune stone (c) Rebecca Reid

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.

“Academic debunking”

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.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam Self says:

    Thanks Jack! 🙂 I’m going on Thursday and I’m interested to read your comments. I would say however that the Vikings didn’t rape and pillage as much as people think they did. The contemporary sources at the time were written by monks who were often ousted from their environments and were rightfully miffed at the Viking’s behaviour but their sources are somewhat biased and not everything “bad” about the Vikings should be believed 🙂

    1. Thanks Sam, that’s a very good point!

  2. This was fairly accurate of my visit too. After reading many negative reviews, I was surprised not to hate it, but that’s because I went when it was empty and it didn’t cost me anything. Also, Viking aesthetics appeal to me anyway (the silver, the imagery, the wood).

    Bearing that all in mind, it’s a shame. Such a dynamic and interesting people represented rather blandly. The silver sparkled but I was left wanting. Large display cases with a couple of tiny things shoddily mounted. Tiny pile after tiny pile of shrapnel. Only a small handful of truly memorable objects. I didn’t really get the boat either: for me it distracted from the 20% of actual boat and competed with the rustic and woody imagery my imagination was trying to conjure up.

    Many of the brooches were gorgeous but I saw quite a lot of repetition in the exhibition. Entire sentences were repeated (maybe they assume no one can read all of it because it’s usually so over-filled?). The number of times I read that “the necklace/brooch/boat/other was a clear sign of wealth…”!

    I love grey too but clearly not as much as the BM. Wow.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Russell; it could have been so much more. Such a shame!

  3. After going to Oslo in January I decided not to see the BM exhibition as I didn’t think anything could match the amazing Vikingskipshuset (which had one incredible reconstituted longboat and some fascinating videos on the conservation and restoration of the wood and pieces found inside the burial mounds!) Pretty glad I didn’t spend £16.50 on seeing the BM’s offering after reading your review – I think that as a fellow Horrible Histories child fan I would have been disappointed. Interested to see the next blockbuster though – hooray Egyptology! P.S. Great blog – I’m studying history of art at Cambridge (finalist) and it’s incredibly helpful for my understanding of museology, and hilariously written to boot.

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