– or, What I Did on My Summer Vacation. This Saturday was my anniversary, so my lovely wife and I packed a small bag each and headed for Budapest. Because both our families live in the US, most of our big holidays are to visit them – or to see them when they are elsewhere. I think this was our first just-the-two-of-us foreign holiday since … well, I don’t remember. Now Budapest is lovely and you should go if you haven’t, but this post is not about that. It is about a strange effect that I experienced in Hungary. See, I know the following about Hungarian history:
That isn’t absolutely true — I did a little 20th century Hungary at university and I recently reviewed it for tutoring purposes. And I suppose I have picked up one or two details over the years. But in general, I haven’t got a lot of in depth knowledge. I thought I would remedy this by diving deep into the guidebooks this past week, but work just kept me too tired and I never got around to it. But I didn’t let this change my usual approach to city-wandering, which is all landmarks, castles and museums all the time (not true; on Sunday we went to the zoo). So I would be standing there, looking up at the verdigrised countenance of a Very Important Hungarian Patriot gazing sternly into the distance and thinking “I have no idea who this guy is or what his deal was.” It was basically like being in Paris, but some weird alternate Paris in a world where I know nothing about French history. Eventually, I went to the Budapest History Museum (admission HUF 2000, and boy does living in Britain spoil you in that regard) and picked up enough of the basics to get by. It reminded me a little bit of my visits to Moscow or Oslo, although my grip of Russian history is sliiiiiightly better. But there were definitely things in Moscow that were clearly Great Big Deals but that I didn’t recognise at all. I recognised Yuri Gagarin in Moscow, though; dude looks like the Rocketeer.
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.
Don’t worry, by the way — a contest post will come tomorrow and prizes will start to fly! I have been acquiring things and stuffing them into envelopes. I just want to talk really briefly about the display of human remains in museums.
Because I was in Ely! And while I was in Ely, as you do, I went to the museum. I got there shortly before they were about to close, so I just wandered around the bookshop a bit. In the entrance, there is this guy:
He is a skeleton in a Roman coffin made of, if I recall correctly, Barnack limestone.
Now, I am not sure off the top of my head if this is an actual couple-of-thousand-year-old skeleton. I suspect it is; it certainly looked like one, but I only really glanced at it. I have seen it before.
Whether or not this specific exhibit is the body of a person who died, there are definitely are museums that display actual remains. It’s been the subject of some debate within the museum community for a while. Some people say that it’s disrespectful to the dead, and that actual skeletons should be replaced with replicas or similar. Others say that the educational benefit outweighs the disrespect and/or that it doesn’t really matter, given that these people have been dead thousands of years.
What’s certain about displays of human remains in museums is that the punters love them. When the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford talked about getting rid of its shrunken heads, there were howls of outrage, including the usual denunciations of “political correctness gone mad.” Former fellow Cambridge student Quentin Carroll did a survey confirming that people love the display of human remains: you can read about it here.
Now, partly this may just be the typical human fascination with corpses. You know how we get. That’s especially true for any kind of weird corpse, like a mummy or a bog body, which are desperately fucked-up looking. But partly it may also be that numinous connection I talked about earlier, the thing that made seeing the Coppergate helmet — that strange item with its strange history — so compelling. The presence of continuity.
Cornelius Holtorf (him again!) tells a funny story about putting a replica of a standing stone up in the countryside. People hate the fake standing stone because it feels fake — it’s made of some kind of resin, and it’s hollow, and it just isn’t right. They prefer to go see the real stone in a museum (put there for safe keeping). But the thing is that the stone on display in the museum is also a replica. The real one is too fragile (or whatever) even to go in a display case, so it sits in a museum basement. But people get the sensation of being near the “real thing” with the museum replica, because most of them don’t know it’s a replica.
I think that that numinous feeling, that sense of inexplicable wonder, is one reason people are so into pseudoarchaeology.
Tomorrow: prizes and maybe something a little more exciting generally.