Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum

It’s a sad day. I thought everyone was just jumping on the ‘British Museum isn’t flawless afterall’ bandwagon. But now I’ve been and I guess I need to write about it.

I really enjoyed the Vikings! exhibition at National Museums Scotland last year (and now really wish I’d blogged about it) – when I left I felt like I had gained, even in some small way, a sense of what it was like being a Viking, for instance, with many objects relating to the importance of keys and women and the home you could relate to it on a different level than just male warriors. I was hoping I’d be able to build on some of that at the British Museum’s new exhibition, alas, I think I (or they) failed.

There were some objects here at the British Museum that I loved – the huge, impractical 650g brooch with its long protruding pin that did more to show off the status of the wearer than to keep any fabric in place; the wooden feasting bucket; and the Hunterston brooch with its mix of Scandinavian alphabet and Irish/Scottish name quoted on it (Maelbrighda). And I really liked the large photos that were in each room too, including the landscapes Vikings encountered, a reconstruction of the inside of a longhouse in Norway (yay, reconstructions, but alas, only in photo form), and the Viking boat in situ during excavation.

There’s definitely a lot to see and if you did diligently read every description I’m sure you will build up a rich view of the Viking world, but to be honest I need a bit more help than that as I have quite a short attention span. Let me know what the main points of the story are and I’ll pick up the detail as I go, but here I wasn’t sure what the main story was.

Or maybe the fact Vikings were adventurous seafarers and traders was just a bit of a boring story? Like an exhibition explaining that Romans didn’t just kill and enslave, but brought trade and cultural assimilation – I already know that story, so showing me the inside of someone’s house in Pompeii (as the British Museum did last year) is definitely going to grab my attention a lot more. But unfortunately little grabbed my attention in this Viking exhibition and that left me with little enthusiasm to delve deeper.

…and two more things while I’m at it – please please please number the objects and descriptions, I kept getting confused and a crowded exhibition room doesn’t lend itself to having to spend some time working it out, and please please please let me take photos. People want a personal experience and photos are a part of that now whether you like it or not, having someone shout ‘no photos please’ every 5 minutes is a bit tedious when they just want their picture of a Viking boat to take home with them, if they’ve paid £16.50 each please just let them have their photo.

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7 responses to “Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum

  1. I’m going to see this soon. Disappointed I won’t be able to take photos. It’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve seen in an exhibition & to continue engaging with the story that has been told. Not to mention, to recommend it to friends & keep the conversation going. Nothing worse than coming out of an exhibition stumped, leaving it at the door. Sounds like Vikings in London left you stumped. Vikings in Scotland whetted your appetite to find out more.

    • Absolutely, I don’t know the reason why they don’t allow photos in this exhibition, but surely museums are always looking for ways people can engage with artefacts and taking photos is a way of engaging. Especially for smaller museums, like the Hunterian, who don’t allow photos at all, if people share their experiences more people are going to find out what they have to offer.

  2. I’m absolutely with you about photography. There’s no reason to ban it with artefacts as old as this. On a positive note, the Fitzwilliam now allows photography, so there’s one gallery that’s made a change for the better.

  3. I took photographs, didn’t get caught. The labelling was terrible, and not helped by the fact that there wasn’t a properly itemised catalogue to fill in the gaps. Very bad show on the bms part not to produce an adequate catalogue. Also I can’t see the point in timed tickets if it’s still so overcrowded that you can’t see any thing. Luckily I was there all day and had membership so I could go round again late in the day when it quieter. I’d have been pretty pissed off if I’d paid full price for my morning visit

  4. About photos – everything in the BM permanent collection you are allowed to photograph until you puke (except for light-sensitive stuff but tbh most of that’s rarely on display as it’s extended exposure rather than camera flashes that causes damage). But in temporary exhibitions, objects might be on loan from other collections who don’t want to grant that permission. Or at least that’s what I was always told.
    This creates weird situations eg, not being allowed to photograph the Swimming Reindeer when they were in the Ice Age exhibition, even though at all other times it would be OK.
    I agree it’s frustrating when the exhibition is so expensive in the first place, not to be able to interact with it as you’d choose – and that goes for your other points re crowds, case numbers etc. Mind you, I do have a bit of a bugbear about photography. People sometimes use it to take the place of actually LOOKING at an object when it’s actually in front of them. Again, though, extended and peaceful contemplation of an exhibit is easier said than done with those crowds, so I can see how taking a photo might make things easier.
    Personally I think there should be a greater range of postcards available, and definitely an exhaustive catalogue. But those are expensive. I don’t know how you juggle all these things really – there isn’t much point shelling out for an exhibition you won’t get a chance to absorb properly without also buying more stuff afterwards.

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