“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.