thinking about archaeology

Is British Museum Vikings show a disaster?

jaw

First Stonehenge, now our old friend the BM. What’s gone wrong?

“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].)

gallery

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.”

speech

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.

Easy to miss: the Weymouth pit case

Easy to miss: the Weymouth pit case

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.

There's another 50 or so where these came from

There’s another 50 or so where these came from

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.

entrance

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.

No horns!

No horns!

The boat from the Ardnamurchan Viking burial, excavated in western Scotland in 2011 (see British Archaeology Jul/Aug 2012/125)

The boat from the Ardnamurchan Viking burial, excavated in western Scotland in 2011 (see British Archaeology Jul/Aug 2012/125)

13 responses

  1. I haven’t been to the gallery but the press coverage has been less than exciting. How on earth could they make the story of the Vikings dull? It sounds like people have got too excited with historical revisionism, and have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The vikings may not have been as bad as they had been painted, but they were still partial to the odd bit of marauding.
    About ten years ago, there was a magnificent exhibition of the Aztecs at the Royal Academy in London. It was exceptional. In fact, I went twice. The curators managed to weave stories of everyday life and myths of the Aztec gods into the exhibition in an enlightening way. That was a huge achievement because many of the legends were unknown to people in the UK and the names of gods such as Huitzilopotchli utterly unpronounceable. Did the curators of the Viking exhibition similarly draw on Norse myth and legends in their exhibition? The stories and characters are much better known among the public than the Aztec ones, and to people at the time, these Gods were real, not just characters in a tale.

    March 8, 2014 at 10:28 am

  2. I, too, haven’t been to the exhibition yet, but that they failed to bring a narrative into it is disappointing. Like you said – we all have preconceptions about the Vikings: play on that and show where those preconceptions meet the evidence (or don’t).

    It seems from what you’ve written like the designers of this one are still hung up on the misconception that presenting a list of facts is interesting or useful.

    March 8, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  3. mikepitts

    Please don’t feel too negative about this (especially without seeing it – and I will tour again). By any standard Vikings is a compelling exhibition, artefacts are beautifully displayed, and the texts do indeed do more than list facts. I think what most of us are responding to is the inextricable mix of a new gallery, a major and much anticipated addition to the museum, and the exhibition in it, a lot to take in at once. The show has imposed a particular way of seeing the gallery, at first a conventional space of small low-lit rooms, and then – to receive Roskilde 6, the largest Viking ship ever found – an enormous, warehouse-like blast of modernity, invigorating or depressing according to taste. The gallery is a shell, and can be used in all sorts of ways that will test the ingenuity and imaginations of designers and curators. The ship could never have been displayed here without the Sainsbury (except perhaps in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and where then the narratives?), which I think alone justifies the exhibition and its use of the gallery.

    March 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    • Oh, I’ll definitely go see it! It’s disheartening to see so many bad or disappointed reviews of it, but I’m still excited to get my own impression. (And I’m in favour of modern exhibition spaces, so I’m sure seeing the ship will be great fun.)

      March 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm

  4. mikepitts

    Let us know what you think!

    March 8, 2014 at 3:58 pm

  5. Maeva

    I was on holiday in London and one of the highlights of my visit was this exhibition, which I saw on Thursday 6, the day it opened. I left completely disappointed. The display is dull and bleak. Even the gold and silver look dim the way they are shown. It’s difficult to find the objects the cards refer to and there’s too much to read sometimes. Add to this the crowds and the queue you had no other way to follow if you wanted to see it all. When I reached the last room, I had lost all enthusiasm, although some of the pieces there were the most remarkable. The ship is ok, but imagination is needed to see it complete from just some timber. I felt really miserable afterwards and regretted not having chosen either to see the Colombian gold, which was cheaper, or one of the free guided tours around some of the permanent exhibits, for example the fantastic African section. Not value for money. Extremely expensive for the excitement (???) it provides. Perhaps the audio guide may have given more, but it was another expense I wasn’t ready for, perhaps since I expected something awesome that would talk for itself, but that didn’t actually come true. Sadly, I had to go back to my country, Spain, on Satuday and had not the chance to go back and look around other interesting things at the museum. Maybe next time…

    March 9, 2014 at 9:50 pm

  6. Bruce

    overcrowded and overpriced. There are some interesting exhibits, mostly in the final “ship” room which seems to have more space for the crowds. But the opening rooms are a shuffling queue to look at mostly uninspiring stuff. It’s not a total waste of time – but I really doubt that many people will find it value for money. And the audio guide is similarly overpriced.

    British Museum itself is a fantastic place. This is my first visit to one of its special exhibitions – and will probably be the last. Main impression is that I left feeling like a ripped-off consumer who fell for the hype – and that is such a long way from the normal BM experience, or what any museum experience should be.

    March 10, 2014 at 11:18 pm

  7. Emily

    I visited the exhibition on the 12th March and as a 2nd year undergraduate studying archaeology specialising in Early Medieval archaeology I wasn’t really impressed. I had been looking forward to going since January and was very very excited, however they mucked up on the timings (which you have to pay for a specific slot) so the staff were shoving people in. It was very dark inside. Lots of people so you couldn’t see the artefacts very well. The audio (personally) had no relevance. The information and quotes on the wall were interesting but didn’t relate to one another or to the artefacts below. The shop was extortionately priced for what they are selling. You weren’t allowed to take images, while I understand that from an archaeological perspective for the wood and skeletal material, I would have liked some images of the artefacts in the cases. I was rather disappointed, especially as I love the Viking period in archaeology.
    Good points however – a wide range of artefacts (not loads, but a range of different types – would have been nice to see more), information plaques on the cases were useful and interesting, the skeletons and long ship reconstruction was amazing – I would say the highlight of the whole exhibition.

    March 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm

  8. nicki

    I went to See the Vikings with my son last week. What a waste of money. All I saw was the back of people’s heads. And as for the Viking boat its just a few planks. Talk about disappointing. Don’t bother going unless you like looking at really rude old age pensioners who hog the space in front of the exhibits

    April 11, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    • Emma

      So true. Never have I seen so many ill-mannered people squeezed into one space. One old couple hogged the Vale of York hoard until I got fed up waiting and went to look at something else – I went back half an hour later to find them still there completely oblivious to everyone else waiting to look at it! I was standing back from the cabinets so that more than one person could look at the displays, only to find that people took this as an invitation to move right in front of me and block my view. When did people get so ignorant and selfish of others? One woman in a wheelchair was trying to turn around and in spite of her asking people politely to move, they all ignored her. I enjoyed the exhibit itself but it was far too crowded – I had a similar experience with the horse and Eldorado exhibitions – the BM really needs to find a way to control the flow of people through these exhibits. The crowds completely ruin any ambiance the exhibition may have had. Likewise, I agree with you about the extortionate cost especially once you add on the booking fee.

      June 22, 2014 at 1:02 am

  9. I was very late on the seen with this exhibition. I’ve been a lot kinder in my review than other bloggers and journalists, and a hell of a lot kinder than most people on TripAdvisor have (1 out of 5 stars on average – ouch! – although almost all the complaints are about overcrowding rather than content). I liked the fact that the Vikings were looked at ‘afresh’, and that the exhibition tried to tell their story as a whole (ie. the rich and varied places that they travelled to rather than just Britain, the way their society and their culture changed over time, and the things that they did except for murdering, looting, raiding, etc.). But there are still things I would have done differently … I bit more COLOUR wouldn’t have done any harm, one or two reconstructions/reinactments would have helped bring the Vikings to life a bit, and I also would have put the ship at the beginning. Putting the best bit out first is daring I know, but do think having the “wow” factor of the ship at the start would have energised the whole exhibition and enthused the visitors.

    May 18, 2014 at 8:32 pm

  10. Pingback: REVIEW- Vikings: Life & Legend | the Exhibitionologist

  11. Andrew Pickin

    We saw the exhibition yesterday. On the whole the reviews hit the mark (Mr Sewell’s albeit a bit extreme), fortunately I’d not read any until returning home.

    I have to ask who the BM thinks their audience is? It can hardly be accused of being populist, but the exhibition is so dry that it can only be for academics. But then the information presented is so meagre and frustrating. As remarked here http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/61504c6c-a3b7-11e3-aa85-00144feab7de.html
    There appears to be a bone sword on display with nothing to explain it but “Women’s accessories from Scandinavia”.

    Another case has six spears: three from England, 3 elsewhere. I could identify two with silver components, as the materials were listed other than that – not a clue. Was it really too much trouble to label them 1 through 6.

    The audio tour claims that one carving has runes on the reverse, but it’s situated at the base at the block holding the weather vane so the reverse is obscured. Why not show both sides? The same for the Lewis chessmen, the back of half are obscured.

    I would also have liked more of the everyday, where were the shoes etc?

    While I’ve not been to Roskilde, I have been to Yorvik and the Ship museum in Olso, the later (with the Fram) being one of the most joyous days spent in any museum. I don’t remember seeing anything at this exhibition from Oslo, I found that surprising.

    I’m rather glad that my son was too young to journey to London, I could easily see this exhibition casting a long shadow in the mind of any child forced round it.

    I the end I did enjoy the exhibition and was glad that I went. But also to see such an example of how to display fascinating material so badly.

    June 9, 2014 at 10:45 pm

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