“Disaster” is what art critic Brian Sewell calls the newly opened “Vikings: Life and Legend” exhibition – and also the room in which it’s held, part of the new and hugely significant extension to the British Museum. Writing in the Evening Standard, he describes the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ gallery as a “charmless achievement”, “a vast and featureless container, bleak, grey and gloomy… with better lighting it could easily be adapted for the production of Shredded Wheat”.
“Worse still,” he adds, “other than for archaeologists, the exhibition too is a disaster, deadly dull.”
I like the “other than for archaeologists”. Did we have our early excitement with the past ground down by years of research, or were we just bored and boring from the start?
This is not just a Brian Sewell whine, however (though his review begins with a long passage of reminisces about swotting, and all the things that “every schoolboy knows” – it’s definitely him). Other thoughtful reviews also find the show wanting.
In the Telegraph, Mark Hudson finds his worst preconceptions about academics confirmed. “I will learn that these rapacious raiders were in fact vegetarians,” he muses as he climbs the steps, “that they maintained some of the leading universities of the day and, worst of all, that they did not wear horned helmets”. Sure enough, the helmets have no horns (more about this later). He finds his hoped-for “semi-imaginative approach doesn’t sit with the desire for academic and political correctness expressed in the exhibition’s texts. Modern examples of the materials the Vikings traded in, such as elk furs and walrus tusks, have, we are informed, been ‘ethically sourced from within the EU’”.
(An aside. In the Natural History Museum’s “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story” – spectacular archaeological shows in two of our greatest national museums at the same time! – there are a pair of fabulously realistic models of early humans, one a neanderthal, the other a modern. Though the museum has now moved on from not exhibiting even ancient human fossils, so that by rounding up the UK’s, the show reveals many of them publicly for the first time, it retains the policy for modern remains. So the hair in the model humans is not human – but Highland cattle. As Simon Parfitt pointed out to me, this probably means an animal had to die for it [I spoke to Alfons Kennis, who made the models with his brother, for a feature in the current edition of British Archaeology].)
Back in the BM, Hudson didn’t like the space either. The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, he says, houses “a collection of severely functional, starkly rectilineal spaces got out in handsome, but sombre grey… The starkly contemporary design robs the proceedings of any sense of atmosphere, romance or mystery.” Hearing the background audio is “like listening to an episode of The Killing in an outbuilding of Stansted Airport”.
Jonathan Jones bares his teeth in the Guardian. “When you enter the show”, he writes, “there’s no excitement at all. The new gallery is not as charismatic as the museum’s old Reading Room, where great shows like The First Emperor (and his terracotta warriors) and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum were staged. The circular shape of the Reading Room made for magical labyrinthine displays. This place feels, on first sight, more like a big grey box where display cases are laid out in dismal straight lines.”
“Where [are] the swords?” he asks. “Why not weave [Viking] tales and the histories written by their enemies into the mix of archaeological stuff to give it warmth and context? The refusal to do so cannot be an oversight. It looks like an archaeological dogma: only material objects painstakingly excavated are to be relied upon as evidence. The rest is romantic twaddle.”
I saw the exhibition last night at the formal opening event (whence my fuzzy phone photos). The show is great, with many lovely things. The ship is spectacular, as everyone agrees (not least the current British Archaeology). I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend “Vikings: Life and Legend” to anyone. Go.
Yet I understand what the critics are saying. If I’d been able to have a hand in it, I’d have done it differently.
The core of the problem is narrative. As Jones says, there is no sense of arrival when you start. The cases display set pieces without really holding a story together, and there is no build up to the ship, so the finale feels like a thing in itself. It’s stunning (and a few small cases at the far, stern end do at last hang together). But it’s unrelated to – or amputated from – the world of small treasures and insights that came before.
Starting with the ship wouldn’t work – after it, all those cases to follow would then be a let down. But there is a solution. It’s almost hidden away on the floor in a dark corner near the stern. It’s archaeological – a new excavation no less. It’s deeply shocking. Kids will love it. It panders to our preconceptions of blood-thirsty invaders – and then turns them upside down. It’s the narrative pull the whole show needs. A mass grave.
In 2009 Oxford Archaeology chanced upon a huge pit in Dorset, as they excavated in advance of works associated with 2012 Olympics water events in Weymouth. The brutally decapitated bodies of some 50 young men had been slung into the pit. Their heads had been piled up any old how to one side. Stripped naked, many of the men had struggled pitifully as a heavy, razor-edged sword sliced into them, slashing their shoulders, cutting off fingers, hacking into jaws and, ultimately, removing their heads with several badly placed blows. Nothing like it has ever been found in Britain.
The archaeologists first thought they had evidence for a Roman massacre of native warriors – the only artefacts were a few Roman pot sherds. But radiocarbon dating revealed the bones were early medieval, so the men became Anglo-Saxon victims of a Vikings raid. And then scientific evidence showed they were Vikings: they were born in a zone ranging across Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia.
The new Sainsbury Gallery is, to use words of the Telegraph’s Mark Hudson, starkly modern. That’s its beauty. It’s unencumbered by the original buildings’ grace and ornamentation, the history, and the sometimes dark corners and clunky interfering pillars. The Reading Room brought its own drama to temporary exhibitions, sucking you down a dark, curving tunnel and suddenly releasing you into a soaring, exquisite space. You wander off the corner of the Great Court into Vikings almost without realising it. The show has to deliver its own theatre.
Imagine leaving the court and coming face to face with the skeletal remains of a mass grave. Vikings! Invasions! Murder! Pillage! It’s all there, in gory detail, everything we grew up with (archaeologists, too). Yet the real shock comes when we discover the killers were not Vikings. They were Anglo-Saxons. This was an atrocity perpetrated on Vikings, by our forebears.
There is no historical evidence for the event, just the archaeology. So what else has archaeology told us? And there is the story.
The great excitement of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is its challenge. Even Vikings, on their own, struggle to make it work. It’s all in the exhibition. New imagination and vision need to be let loose. Museum and academic inhibitions broken. “Shakespeare: Staging the World” (in the Great Court Reading Room in 2012) gave a hint of what can be done, where theatrical designers set the stage. But the Sainsbury demands much, much more. It could be the best thing that’s happened to the museum in generations.
My Dad was a rear-gunner in world war two. He flew mostly in Liberators (during the war) and Lancasters (immediately after), but according to his log book he also went up in nine other types.
I’ve been reading about a recent excavation project on Salisbury Plain, when soldiers and archaeologists examined a Battle of Britain Spitfire crash site (the pilot had safely bailed out). It reminded me of one of the first British Archaeology’s I edited, back in 2004.
It featured enthusiasts digging up plane crash-sites (not something that impressed me very much at the time). Simon Esterson and I chose an old Spitfire photo for the cover, which he made into a really great design. To show how long ago it was in publishing terms, we had to scan a print provided by the Imperial War Museum, and the Royal Mail train carrying the package got stuck in snow between Swindon and London, causing a minor panic.
It turned out my Dad wasn’t very impressed with the digging either. I got a letter from him addressed to The Editor, which I put into the next edition of British Archaeology:
“The wording on the cover of your March issue ‘They died for us, Now we dig them up’, as well as much of the writing upon ‘Who owns our dead’, has disturbed me.
“I was an airgunner during the 2nd World War. If I had been buried beneath the waves, or buried beneath the sod, I would have wanted my body to have rested in peace, my soul having flown.
“I see no good reason for disturbing the serenity and calm of those buried, say, during the last 100 years, when records and communications can tell us all we need to know.
“Roger Pitts, Chichester”
Roger died late last year, aged 90. He didn’t talk much about the war, in common with many of his contemporaries. But now I have a small tin with a selection of prints and papers, and his log book.
He summarised his flying across the pages above; he was in No 40 Squadron RAF, based in Egypt. The chart includes his training as a rear-gunner, bombing missions over Italy and ferrying work in the months after war ended, while he waited to return home to the farm in Sussex he’d left in 1942. He’d been 18 or 19 then, and was expected to grow food and not enlist – farming was a “reserved occupation”. However, a close friend was killed flying a Spitfire, and a cousin was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III having been shot down piloting a Lancaster. He felt unable to stay put. He volunteered, and the Air Force eagerly took him on.
At the back of the log is a list of the planes he went up in, in flying order. It’s an extraordinary catalogue of experiences, of a time when aircraft were not hotels with changing scenery, but engineered frames that defied gravity with every rivet and curved metal plate – so long, my Dad warned me before my first flying lessons, as the pilot kept up the air speed, held the plane at the right angle and the engines at the right throttle, pumping and hammering from nose to tail through every component and passenger. It is an insight into what has come to feel almost commonplace, an air war that for most of us today is yet beyond imagination. I made Airfix models of a Wellington and a Lancaster when I was a kid, and I remember a friend making a Flying Fortress. I had no idea that my Dad had flown in the real things.
Avro Anson, used to train pilots for flying multi-engined bombers, and to train the other members of a bomber’s aircrew – navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers and air gunners. It was the RAF’s first monoplane with a retractable undercarriage.
Vickers Wellington, a long range medium bomber built with a geodesic construction method devised by Barnes Wallis: as a result, wrote Roger, “very safe… she would not break up easily on crashing and would float for hours if brought down on water, unlike the Liberators [in which he flew operations across the Mediterranean] which would break up and sink within seconds.”
Consolidated B-24 Liberator, an American heavy bomber – a more advanced version of the better known Flying Fortress, but said to be harder to fly. Roger used to say that he saw more fatalities during take-offs and landings with inexperienced pilots than on active service. One of the craft in his log is noted a week before his flight as having “Bounced on landing, stalled and spun into ground, Foggia Main”. After his first operational flight from Foggia (a bombing raid over Italy), Roger noted that the squadron’s only loss “was a poor landing by one Liberator which broke away the rear gunner’s turret with the gunner inside”.
Dakota, military version of the DC-3 airliner, used to carry troops and freight, for air-dropping supplies and paratroops, for towing gliders and for casualty evacuation.
Avro Lancaster, the RAF’s main heavy bomber, designed by Roy Chadwick and powered by four Rolls-Royce Merlins.
Boulton Paul Defiant, an interceptor aircraft with a rear-facing gun turret set behind the pilot, found to be most effective at night when it was less vulnerable to fighter attack. It was also used in gunnery training, towing targets and air-sea rescue.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, heavy bomber flown mostly by the USAAF, but with an undistinguished service in the RAF early in the war.
Fairchild Argus (a British version of the US Model 24), flown mostly with the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying aircrew. The photo at Gaza shows Roger Pitts on the right in characteristic wartime pose. One of his major responsibilities in Egypt was as Welfare Officer for his squadron, which included listening to the men’s worries and running all the sports activities. (He later labelled this photo a Lysander, a similar plane but with a three-bladed propeller; the Lysander is not in his logbook.)
Percival Proctor, a wireless-operator trainer and communications aircraft.
Martin Baltimore, a light attack bomber also used for reconnaissance, originally built in the US but made for the RAF in Britain.