Friday 16 May 2014

'Vikings: Life and Legend' exhibition at the British Museum

Many thanks to ASNC graduate student Jo Shortt Bulter for this review

I was lucky enough to attend this exhibition as part of the project Languages, Myths and Finds. We arrived an hour before it opened to the public on Friday 28th March, so perhaps had a clearer view of the exhibits than most of the public.

In January, the curator of Vikings: Life and Legend, Gareth Williams, gave the Languages, Myths and Finds participants a lecture on the intentions of the exhibition. Preaching to the converted, he told us of the importance and relevance of a new Viking exhibition, observing that the popular stereotype of the marauding Viking has barely changed over the past three decades (since the British Museum’s previous Viking exhibition). One needs only to read any review of the exhibition in a national newspaper to see that this is true.

We learnt of the intention to focus on the eastern expansion of the Norse, taking full advantage of the raising of the iron curtain that allowed the exchange of research on the Rus to pass in and out of eastern Europe and Russia once more. The exhibition was to focus on the magnificent Roskilde 6 ship as a symbol for various aspects of Norse and Viking culture: transport, warfare, power and diplomacy, and ritual.

Whilst I can confirm that the exhibition succeeded partially in doing this, its success was largely confined to the vast new room that houses Rosdkile 6 itself. Before reaching the star attraction, we were led back and forth through a series of cases displaying smaller finds. Anticipating the exhibition’s climax, the first cases contained small toy boats and a scratched image of a Viking ship on stone. Even at this point of the exhibition, the use of space was puzzling: sometimes the back of a case was not utilised, leaving an empty grey space; the fabulous Hunterston Brooch showed its glittering Celtic interlace off to anyone who wanted to peer up close through its case, but its rune-carved reverse – the Viking part of it! – was frustratingly difficult to view, requiring one to lean over the deep block on which it stood (something that I have no doubt would not be possible were the exhibition at its busiest).

These displays were also sadly hampered by inadequate labelling. There were no numbers to link the objects to their description or provenance, and without an audio guide I was glad of the insider knowledge that allowed me to identify familiar objects, or match them to their descriptions quickly. The narrative seemed to me to be as follows: introduce Norse artefacts; introduce artefacts from the parts of the world with which the Norse interacted (Anglo-Saxon England, Celtic Ireland, Frankia, the Slavic lands, Byzantium etc); having briefly shown examples of ‘Norse’ and ‘non-Norse’ art-forms, show examples that demonstrate the mingling of Norse styles with local styles; show similar objects of Norse manufacture that were found everywhere from Dublin to Novgorod. What should have been very visually easy to follow, I worry was made confusing when labelling did not immediately make clear the origin of the finds on display.

Of course, this does not detract from the artefacts themselves – incredible, chunky chains of Slavic jewellery hung boldly alongside delicately carved Byzantine ivory drinking vessels. Bright glass beads and a golden comb nestled below intimidatingly large oval brooches. The hoards of silver were spread out in piles showing how far-flung the original homes of their contents were, and this display of wealth led us out of the winding first room and, suitably, onto a section on trade.

There is a tendency to roll one’s eyes at the appearance of ‘raiders and traders’ in a Norse or Viking context, but seeing a weighty iron chain and collar set opposite delicate weights and balances brought the clichéd phrase used by the exhibition to life. After that, it was out of the grey and into a red room lined with truly dazzling Viking bling. Ginormous, hilariously impractical brooches bristled, and the background sounds of Old Norse (read by the department’s very own Icelandic teacher, Orri Tómasson) began to mingle with the sound of the sea. Roskilde 6 was getting close, and the excitement mounted.

Trying very hard to be interested in various dining implements and the ghost of a drinking horn, what I really wanted to do at this point was run around the corner and into the main thing.

Rumours of a cavernous, airport-like space were indeed true, but the ship filled it well enough. Standing between the sweeping metal skeleton of Roskilde 6 and the high, wall-mounted bones of other ships – a set of oars, a solid prow, a long, bleached rudder – I felt as though I were in a natural history museum, between displays of long extinct giant animals. Video screens around the ship brought its vital statistics to life, although I don’t recall much being made of the fact that Roskilde 6 is bigger than Óláfr Tryggvason’s awesome Ormr inn langi.

The displays here had more breathing space than those in the first room, and the layout could be appreciated more clearly – peering through the glass case containing a decorated brass weathervane, one could see how it lined up with the prow of the ship structure behind it. The labelling did not improve, however – confronted by cases filled with weapons of corroded iron and twisted metal it became difficult to identify which spear-head was found where. And I am afraid that I am just the sort of nerd who wants to do that in an exhibition.

The Lewis chessmen (photograph by Margo Griffin-Wilson)

To overcome that small disappointment: on to the new ‘Valkyrie’ figurine from Denmark, alongside some of the Lewis chessmen. Again, though, like the Hunterston brooch, the delicate carving on the back of the chessmen was mentioned but remained impossible to see. Surely, as my colleague Jane Harrison observed, an angled mirror behind the objects would have solved this problem? And a magnifying panel, or enlarged picture, by the tiny silver figurine would have been most welcome.

By this point I was having to rush in order to make it to a meeting, but I enjoyed musing on the fact that the warriors from the mass grave in Dorset were crammed into a ‘dead-end’ in the layout of the exhibition, and wish I had had more time to dwell on the cases full of swords. There was one final disappointment, before I dashed past the odd charms and staffs and token crosses in the ‘ritual’ part of the room. The Ardnamurchan boat burial is one of the most exciting recent finds displayed for the first time in Vikings: Life and Legend, but it was little more than a collection of corroded rivets arranged in the shape of a boat. Here, and elsewhere in the exhibition, I found the minimalist aesthetic to be most unhelpful – printing the lines of the boat underneath the objects, a simple outline of shapes to help the viewer visualise the find more clearly, would have been immeasurably helpful. In the case of the stone carving depicting slaves and slave traders earlier in the exhibition a line-drawing or side-light would have also made things much easier to see.

The exhibition is still a mighty achievement, and to have brought so many items from all over the vast ‘Viking world’ together is wonderful. Roskilde 6 and its specially designed frame are a thing of beauty as much as the sparkling jewellery is, and in the peace of our early morning slot I relished a slow walk around each case. Unfortunately, I cannot imagine going during opening hours – there are a lot of bottle-necks in the exhibition, and the labels (which I seem to recall being a source of chagrin for Gareth Williams, who mentioned their brevity in January) would likely be invisible to many visitors as they squeeze through the first room. An appreciation of the objects themselves should still be possible, however, even if the larger narrative may only be possible to spot intermittently.



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