Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Vikings at the British Museum - warrior or wimp?

Having finally had chance to visit the British Museum's latest archaeological blockbuster, I couldn't help but share my thoughts on an exhibition that has divided viewers.  I confess that, after hearing the views of various colleagues and reading less than congratulatory reviews in both the mainstream media and the museum / archaeology press, it was with some trepidation that I entered the British Museum's new Sainsbury Wing to explore the world of the Vikings.

Exhibitions often win or lose their audience at the very first hurdle and the Vikings didn't get off to an auspicious start for me.  The location of the introductory interpretation wasn't clear and the chance to clearly set out the geographical and temporal constraints of the exhibition and the key curatorial messages lost.  The content of the first room didn't help with this either.  The first few display cases seemed to talk more about the Slavs, Balts and Franks than the Vikings, and overhearing comments from other visitors reinforced my own feelings of confusion about how this early content fitted into the story of the Vikings, and what the message of the exhibition actually was.

Equally confusing was the labelling, which made it difficult to match individual objects to their interpretation.  In fact, many objects simply weren't interpreted individually at all - instead existing as groups of objects displayed as grave assemblages, hoards or thematic groups.  Without some prior knowledge of the terminology being used, I can imagine that many visitors simply failed to understand what they were looking at.  One good point was that at least the captions were produced twice, avoiding a problem encountered in previous BM exhibitions of low level captions being hidden from most of the people viewing the case.

Another issue which struck me like a hammer on first entry was just what an endless sea of grey everything was.  I can almost imagine the design conversation - Walls? Grey. Ceiling? Grey.  Case interiors? Grey. Interpretation panels? Pink. Just kidding, make them grey too.  I'm sure the idea was to make the gold, silver and amber look vibrant in contrast, but it really didn't work for me, and the monochrome expanse actually became quite depressing. Combined with the fact that many cases contained near identical material, it made the experience feel repetitive.  Seriously - visit the exhibition and count how many pairs of tortoise brooches there are in different cases!

Before you start to feel that this review is full of nothing but negativity, let me reassure you that the assembled objects really are special.  For a people that didn't leave us a huge amount of distinct material culture, the object selection is first rate.  Part of the problem seemed to me to be one of the fundamental difficulties when presenting archaeological objects - many of them are small.  
The detail, and the wonder of so many of these items is undeniably in the detail, is lost behind glass and crowds. There are no enlargements or graphics to enable the visitor to easily marvel at the tiny decoration and discover each object's personality. Instead, every small gold, silver, copper alloy or bone item looks vaguely the same, which is a huge shame as the objects are genuinely wonderful and many of them worthy of lengthy and detailed examination.  Such objects need to be displayed in a way that promotes patience from visitors, especially since many will have been so recently wowed by the large scale and easily appreciable splendour of the Pompeii exhibition.

The exhibition feels like the proverbial game of two halves.  The first half is confined within tighter corridors, but the second opens into a single large, open plan area, centred around the star of the show - one of the Roskilde boats.  I had been disappointed before visiting to learn that the boat was actually more frame than object and was almost ready to criticise it before even seeing it. On standing before it, however, I confess I was very impressed. The frame is a work of art in its own right, showing the sinuous beauty of the craft to great effect, and positioned cleverly within the gallery, allowing it to be seen from many angles and different heights. The displays surrounding it are equally good, effortlessly explaining the manufacture and use of these sleek icons with some wonderfully surviving and evocative organic remains and neat video presentations.  They feel like they have been created by a different curator than the earlier displays, and almost as if they belong to a different exhibition.

This large space also contains the more traditional part of the Viking story - that of warfare and raiding.  I was excited to see elements of the Viking mass grave excavated in Dorset a few years ago, having recently read about it in Current Archaeology. However, I completely agree with Mike Pitts in his exhibition review - it would have been great to have this example of Anglo Saxons killing Vikings elevated to a position near the start of the exhibition to turn the stereotypes of who was the butcher and who the butchered on its head and engage visitors right from the first room.

So, despite the criticisms, how did the exhibition make me feel?  As a Romanist, the Vikings have never held me in total thrall as a culture, but I hoped that this exhibition would open my eyes to the complex social and cultural world of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries and give me a greater understanding of a time period so often oversimplified to raids and monastery burnings.  Sadly, the overall narrative was lost on me and I'm not sure I could tell someone much more about the Vikings than I could when I walked in.  However, a number of the objects, not least the Roskilde boat, were truly stunning and very memorable.  Despite my reservations over some of the display choices, the sheer quality of them stays with me and makes it difficult for me to look back on my time in the exhibition entirely negatively.  It was certainly an exhibition that started slowly but ended on a high.

As for the new exhibition gallery itself, I'm not the first to say that it feels like a characterless modern box, and it certainly lacks the charm and personality of the Reading Room. Hopefully its versatility will come to the fore in future exhibitions and its probably unfair to judge its success (or otherwise) so soon and on only one exhibition. However, a greater injection of vibrancy in future would be welcome to make the displays more of a celebration of the past than a mausoleum.

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