Vikings Life and Legend at The British Museum

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The Medieval Historian and I have just had a couple of days in London. We went to see the Viking exhibition at the British Museum. I had been really looking forward to this. It’s a bit of a family joke that I am 99% Viking, coming from that bit of England that was settled under the Danelaw. These feel like my people, and I did come over a bit peculiar at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde just at the sight of those magnificent prows coming towards me. In the end, though, this exhibition fell a bit flat for me. Our first mistake was to go during the school holidays, There were many very bored children slumped about the place, and they grew more plentiful as the exhibition went on. It wasn’t their fault. There really wasn’t that much to hold their attention. The exhibits were really very small for the most part and difficult to see as the exhibition was so crowded. They were also really badly labelled. I know that labelling is a big area of contention in contemporary museology, and that curators often think that people spend more time reading the rubrics than looking at the objects, but in this case there was no indication what some things actually were. This was frustrating if you wanted more than just a casual glance. I felt it was one of those exhibitions, which you usually get at the Royal Academy where you get a better view from the catalogue back home on your sofa with a cup of tea.

A major problem, though, was that the whole exhibition was built around a newly discovered Viking ship, found under the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, surely the last place you would think to look for one. The problem was that although the steel armature built to hold it is spectacular and has that extraordinarily moving (for me) shape, there was only 20% of the original ship left. Which isn’t that enthralling if you are an eight-year-old boy.

Another problem for me is that the central message of the show was that contrary to popular belief, the Vikings might have started out as marauding raiders, but they morphed into farmers, traders, settlers, decent sorts of chaps who intermarried with local women and became family guys and patrons of the arts. All this is fine, but not that new. The Medieval Historian had already pointed this out to me every time that the stereotypical Viking turned up in films like The Vikings with Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, and I wonder how many people likely to turn up to the BM also knew this. So two big reveals fell a bit flat.

Finally, I suppose I have been very spoiled by visits to Roskilde and the wonderful Swedish and Danish National Museums, which have such fantastic galleries. This made this show look a bit tame.

That aside, I did love the artefacts on show, and they did make me think of zentangles. The page from my sketchbook below shows things I picked out for having zentangle elements. I made a zentangle from the lovely writhing, interwoven snakes that were on so many pieces and tried to use good Viking colours such as red, blue, yellow, white and black, which suggest that when the Viking pieces were new and painted they were easier to decode than they are now. This is at the top of the post.

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This is a detail of the snake drawing:

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and this is a zentangle based on designs I saw in the exhibition:

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So, a bit of a mixed bag, even for a quasi Viking like me!

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