The British Museum’s latest exhibition ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’ has been long-awaited and much-hyped – proof, if nothing else, that the arrival of Vikings still makes us anxious. The placing of such an exhibition at the nation’s symbolic archaeological heart, the British Museum’s new Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery, affirms the special, if romanticised, role the Nordic visitors have in the British psyche.
The well-known image of bearded warriors bringing their axes to bear on the unsuspecting tranquillity of Saxon England is not one entertained here. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Vikings is the myths they created in the British mindset: against the emerging Christian kingdoms of northern Europe they established a resolute Other, profoundly rendered in the hard violence rent upon Northumbrian monasteries.
Pictured above: Viking axe
The collective consciousness has almost forgiven the Vikings their bloodstained blades for their romantic adventure, just as 17th-century pirates are now anti-establishment figures – a curiously British appreciation of the inherent legend in long sea voyages. In ruling the waves Britannia followed Ægir, the Viking god of the sea.
However, any romance in Life and Legend is restricted to the sagas. On entering the British Museum’s new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery one is greeted by the voices reciting ‘Egil’s Saga’ and ‘Gudrun’s Inciting’ in Old Norse.
It’s a subtle soundtrack that adds the distance of history to the objects displayed but it is a distance un-useful at an exhibition that could have brought the Vikings to life through parallels and contemporary example but instead chose a more sterile approach that, while objective, will do little to inspire anyone beyond the numbingly orthodox historian.
Lack of direction
The worst symptom of this is the confusing labelling that refrains from numbering exhibits and often from naming them beyond their metal components, century and country of origin – whether a hairpiece, ring or other ornament we are not allowed to know. It is embarrassing that a £16.50 entrance fee can’t guarantee numbered and named exhibits nor group them either chronologically or geographically.
This lack of direction is frustrating considering the quality of the exhibits. The exhibition is punctuated with the most exquisite brooches, the equal of any jewellery made today and probably more loved as objects of status and unparalleled craftsmanship. An insight into the importance of the sea as medium and message is shown by the fascinating graffiti depicting ships and by an axe crafted from whalebone.
The one thing the exhibition does achieve, and which perhaps explains its scattergun approach, is in showing the expanse and range the raiders and traders had – from North America to Central Asia, demonstrated by the amount of Islamic silver dirhams (for a time the most common coinage in the Viking world) on display and the incredibly beautiful Hunterston Brooch (pictured above) engraved with the Gaelic name ‘Maelbrigda’ written in Scandinavian.
It is a wonderful vehicle for expressing the early-world globalisation established by the Vikings and has many companions, notably the Vale of York Hoard, the pendants from the Mikhailovsky Monastery in Kiev and Hiddensee in Germany (pictured below) and the astonishing sword handle from Eigg which resonates with the intrigue of finding something so beautiful it a space that seems so remote to us now.
These are worthy highlights that credit the exhibition; however the general sterility of the few diagrams and recreations is furthered by insipid statements such as: ‘The main reason for the Viking expansion overseas was probably pursuit of wealth.’
Shameful that the British Museum has passed up a chance to debate the theories behind Viking raids, instead offering the most generic reasoning as to what brought raiding parties to these shores. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering when in human history people have not done something in ‘pursuit of wealth’.
The exhibits become more impressive as the exhibition continues but their stark presentation detracts from the overall feel. It is right that such an important display remains above the lazy history of stereotypes and film scripts but that doesn’t mean it should deny our tendency to fantasise.
An 11th-century mead barrel makes me want to revel in the longhouse and make merry with the heroes of Valhalla as they recount their own epic sagas, so its surgical placement, alone, in a temperature-controlled display cabinet, detracts from this somewhat.
Largest ever longship
The big reveal is Roskilde 6, the biggest longship ever found. It is well presented – high and in the centre of the room to enforce its genuinely impressive dimension – but it is barren: just 20 per cent of the original timbers remain and so they sit parsimoniously on an enormous metal frame. Only the most reticent of academics who would not forgive the curators some artistic licence in providing a replica figurehead – a ship allegedly belonging to the royal war fleet of Cnut the Great surely deserves some trimmings.
The exhibition does succeed in giving a sense of Viking industry: Roskilde 6 is surrounded by numerous weapons, swords, oars and replica horsehairs ropes you can grasp, imagining the harsh North Sea salt tear across palms as the wind picks up and carries you down the Whale Road.
The importance of warrior culture are thoughtfully reflected by a display of butchered Viking skeletons from southern England; ignominiously buried in a mass grave proving violence was never a Viking monopoly and providing an all too welcome insight into the world around the Vikings.
In Norse mythology the Earth is destroyed in the battle of Ragnarok, the surviving gods play chess with gold pieces found in long grass and talk of their fallen friends. I can think of few more romantic images in world literature, so it is a shame that this display of wonderful and intricate objects does little to project the worldview whence they came, letting us share their understanding and giving useful reference points.
The British Museum is correct to dispel assumptions, emphasising the loose meaning of the word ‘Vikings’ (without article) and Viking aversion to geographical boundaries, but it should access the public imagination if it wants to inform it; the numerous events surrounding the exhibition such as Judith Weir’s opera ‘King Harald’s Saga’ and Tony Law’s Viking time traveller set will do that but enigmatic labelling and confusing curation won’t.
This is a collection of pieces rightly celebrated and will be essential viewing for any Viking enthusiast, however for such an enthralling collection it is needlessly difficult to engage with and should do more to give us the benefit of historical perspective rather than deliberately leaky definition of a society that did so much to define our own.
Vikings: Life and Legend runs at the British Museum until 22 June