So, a scant two hours or so after going to the comics exhibit at the British Library (as documented in my last post), my wife and I went to the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibit at the British Museum. I thought it was pretty good.
I have mentioned before that the Vikings are one of those subjects in history that are full of romance, and if you want to tell people about them you have to actively work not to let the romance distort what you’re saying. And yet you have to have some element of the romance in it, because that’s partly why you’re doing the thing in the first place, right? I mean, look at the poster in the photo above.
So, the exhibit.
I went in with a bunch of friends and relatives, none of whom were quite as nerdy about early medieval Europe as I am. They enjoyed it as well, but obviously they didn’t get quite the shock of familiarity that I got when seeing things like the Mammen axe:
… or the Winchester Liber Vitae:
Me being me, I therefore got a little extra sort of sense of being in an Early Medieval Europe’s Greatest Hits type of environment. And the greatest hit of all, of course, is the ship, Roskilde 6. I say ship, but it is honestly not quite a ship — more fragments of one. It’s not as impressive as the Gokstad ship, but you do get to see that it was absolutely huge. It’s quite impressive.
As for the exhibit itself, there were good things and bad things. Here are the good things:
- Pretty much the very first thing you see when you go in is a set of comparison artefacts from lots of different cultures that the Vikings came into contact with — Byzantine, Frankish, Baltic, English, Irish, and so on. So that’s really nice: you see the Vikings not as an isolated culture but as part of a broader European world. The same trick is done upstairs in the Sutton Hoo room, and I was pleased with it there.
- There is a lot of talk about the Vikings in the east, and not a disproportionate amount (or at least not too much) about the Vikings in England. Given how important the Baltic and Russia were in the Viking age, this is nice to see.
- There is a hell of a lot of neat stuff — that’s yer British museum for you.
Here are the bad things:
- The first part of the exhibition, before you get out into the area where the ship is, is designed in such a way that the crowd tends to clog up. Fortunately, I am pretty tall, so I could see over people’s heads, but not everyone is. I guess that is a problem of popularity, but I didn’t feel like it was present in the second area — maybe people had figured out the appropriate pace by then.
- That’s actually pretty much it. I thought the presentation was very British-Museum-y: kind of spare and restrained and a little dark. I mean, you know what you’re getting. I quite like it, but I know some people don’t.
- I have heard some complaints about the catalogue, but I haven’t really had time to look at it yet.
The weirdest thing about the whole experience to me was the gift shop. They have a plastic Viking sword in there and it’s … I mean, it’s alarmingly accurate. Like, it’s got INGELRII ME FECIT on the blade. The toy swords I played with as a kid were some bullshit by comparison. On the other hand, it did cost like £14.99, so maybe it’s just that rich kids get good stuff? And the plastic Viking helmet you can buy is a nice little version of the Gjermundbu helmet. No horns in sight.
The exhibition hall has lots of quotes from various poems, histories and so on up on the walls and around the cases, which I liked. Makes good use of the space. My favourite was this one about a Viking warrior with some unusual ancestry:
The Stories of the ancients tell us that Ursus (a certain nobleman whom the Lord, contrary to what normally happens in human procreation, allowed to be created from a white bear as a father and a noblewoman as a mother), begot Spratlingus;Spratlingus begot Ulfius; and Ulfius begot Beorn, who was nicknamed Beresune, that is, “Bear’s Son”. This Beorn was Danish by race, a distinguished earl and famous soldier. As a sign, however, that due to part of his ancestry he was of a different species, nature had given him the ears of his father’s line, namely those of a bear. In all other features he was of his mother’s appearance.
I like that his badass feature is bear’s ears — not claws, not teeth, not a snout, ears. Here is how I imagine him.
So, yeah, I thought it was good. My relatives enjoyed it. I didn’t learn anything, particularly, but then I didn’t really expect to, and I suspect I’ll learn something from the book. It was mainly cool to see these things in person. Somehow in my mind “sorceress’s” staffs (staves?) were longer.
You should go if you can; it’ll be fun and informative. If you know something I don’t about it, you should tell me. If you think the Vikings have been done to death, well, you’re probably right, but we may not share the same assumptions.