Scandinavian influence in the UK goes much further back than wearing Sarah Lund jumpers and coveting Saga Noren’s car, the British Museum’s latest exhibition explains. The Vikings, usually thought of as horned-helmeted monastery pillagers, were actually the centre of an exchange of culture that reached from North America to the Middle East.
Between the late 8th and early 11th centuries, Scandinavian people took to their longships and developed trade routes (and yes, engaged in the odd bit of invading) all across Europe and beyond. The results of this trade are evident in various hoards displayed in their finery: a Frankish cup, Anglo-Saxon and Islamic coins, Russian jewellery, and Nordic designs in items unearthed far from the fjords. This is multi-cultural society in action.
For the exhibition, what this means in practice is cabinet after cabinet of similar looking items – some stunning, some less so – found in various parts of Europe. It gets the point across but we found ourselves wishing for a little diversity. This is the problem with archaeology; what survives tends to be the grave goods and hoards of the wealthy, and those items tend to be coins, jewellery, axe heads and swords. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the riches of last year’s Pompeii exhibition.
There are some stand-out pieces, notably some brooches big enough to stab someone and, of course, the 37m long warship excavated in Roskilde, the largest Viking ship ever discovered. 20% of the original timbers survive and the exhibition recreates the full ship in a metal frame. It’s impossible not to cast your mind back to an engrossing video wall at the start, showing the Viking trade routes and images from the different destinations, and think ‘they did those journeys in that?’. Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde was smaller, but at least it had some cover.
The warship can only be displayed because the exhibition is in the brand new Sainsbury Gallery (the opposite side of the Great Court to the main entrance). It’s very modern and will serve future shows well with its flexible space and lighting but… Simply put, it’s lacking in atmosphere. The grey walls can’t compete with the glorious ceiling decorations and hushed ambience of the Round Reading Room. The Telegraph describes the experience as “like listening to an episode of The Killing in an outbuilding of Stansted Airport” and we can’t top that.
Many of these artefacts are being shown outside Scandinavia for the first time and there is a lot to learn. However, unless you’re determined to be wowed by the longship you might be better off booking a cinema seat for a live broadcast on 24 April, when historians Michael Wood and Bettany Hughes host a private view with British Museum director Neil MacGregor and exhibition curator Gareth Williams.
Vikings: Life and Legend runs at the British Museum, Great Russell Street WC1, until 22 June. Tickets £16.50 / £13 / £8.25. Londonist saw this exhibition on a complimentary ticket.