For many of us, mention of the Vikings brings up images of ferocious, sword-wielding barbarians who made an everyday habit of killing monks and building very big boats in order to forcefully conquer new lands. The British Museum however promises a reassessment of the popular image in their blockbuster show Vikings: Life and Legend, which is the first on this theme for over 30 years. Capitalising on recent archaeological discoveries and new scholarship, it has set itself up to be a novel and fresh show.
Keen to bust any Viking myths that the visitor might have from the off, the exhibition opens by stating its scope. It covers the period 800-1050 AD and documents the rapid expansion of the Vikings from their Scandinavian homelands to places as far-flung as Spain and Istanbul. In the first two rooms, I was fearful that the British Museum had let ambition forsake focus however, as I was confronted with displays containing Byzantine stone inscriptions next to toy longboats, leading to a disjointed feel. One fellow visitor commented that “it’s like being a Scottish gift shop” whilst we were both looking at a case of Celtic-looking brooches and indeed, the unsuccessful contextualisation did make the artefacts feel distant and void of much meaning.
As the exhibition progresses however, the curating becomes clearer. Thematic sections on court culture, political systems, religion and domestic life paint a picture of the Vikings as a people who approached art in an incredibly sensitive and self-conscious manner. The breadth of mediums they used for image-making was astounding and the exhibition boasts works in stone, metal, wood, glass and ivory. One of the aspects I found most surprising were the insights given by the objects into the personal lives of the Vikings; a particular highlight is a delicately engraved earwax scoop which would have been worn around the owner’s neck as a pendent. On display are also some of the more symbolic objects of the Viking race, such as weapons and the centrepiece of the exhibition, the surviving timbers of a 37-meter-long warship. Feeling simultaneously intimate with the lives of the Vikings and awed by their martial and technological power is arguably the strongest aspect of the exhibition.
Despite a questionable start, Vikings: Life and Legend, definitely achieves what it sets out to do. The thematic curation sets up a dialogue of peaceful trader versus violent raider, but without forcing either perception upon the visitor. This open-ended curating allows you make up your own mind and I left feeling that I’d been given a fresh understanding of this relatively niche and often stereotyped period.
Beatrix Callow is a BA2 student at the Courtauld.
Vikings: Life and Legend is at the British Museum until the 22nd June