Sharon Heal

When the facts get in the way of a good story

Sharon Heal, 19.02.2013
Vicious Vikings or a sanitised version of history?
Vikings didn't wear horned helmets. They were probably more trader-like than war-like. Farming and family were as important as rape and pillage. Oh, and they didn't actually call themselves Vikings unless they were on one of their infamous excursions.  

On the way to see the Vikings exhibition at National Museum Scotland, I asked my 11-year-old what she knew about the Vikings. The stereotypes poured forth, many gleaned from Horrible Histories, so I was keen to see how many myths could be debunked and replaced by hard facts.

The exhibition isn't short of facts. In truth there are so many that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The exhibition aims to present the Vikings in a new light, with hard evidence gathered from archaeology, research and source material.

And the exhibition doesn't wear this research lightly; nearly every other piece of text refers to source material and archeological evidence. Which is all well and good until the facts themselves become a dull liturgy with little narrative or colour.

The objects are stunning and in some instances surprising – the colourful glass beads and jewellery, the intricate silver crucifix and the Indian bronze Buddha, all of which were found in Sweden in this period.

The displays are well-designed and the text informative and easy to read. The interactives are engaging and varied, from the simple (write your name in runes) to the more complex (digital grave excavations and a touchscreen version of the Viking board game Hnefatafl).  

So what's missing?

Most people would associate gods, myths and legends with the Vikings. And of course the stories of Thor, Odin and the Valkyries are mentioned in the sections on worship and death. But the passion and drama of these myths has been almost completely wrung out of them.

The exhibition curators have successfully debunked myths about the violent Vikings and inserted some new information about the role of women in society. Unfortunately this is done at the expense of an engaging narrative.

Despite the fact that the very last section of the exhibition lays to rest the myth that the Vikings wore horned helmets, once you step outside into the shop there are swords and horned helmets aplenty, alongside the Vicious Vikings book from the Horrible Histories series.

Whatever you might think of the Horrible Histories version of the past, the books and TV series have done lots to engage young people with history. On balance I'd like to have seen a bit more of the Vicious Vikings and a little less of this sanitised version of events.   


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27.02.2013, 10:01
Create an exhibition based on sensationalist myth and fantasy and get great ticket sales (at the expense of credibility). Create an exhibition based on hard evidence and try to present the past the way it really was, and get flack...

Surely, in this day and age where violence is pretty much normalised through computer games, music and film, a little thump back to earth courtesy of the early protagonists can't be a bad thing?

The retail mismatch is unfortunate, but the modern concept of what people think of when they see/hear the word 'Viking' is fully acknowledged at the end of the exhibition.