Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vikings at the British Museum and Georgians at the British Library

The Vikings have finally arrived at the British Museum (this is an exhibition I've been anticipating for a while now) and so today we headed down (or should that be up) to London to see them. The reviews I've read for this (in The Telegraph and The Guardian) have both been a bit negative so I went along with suitably managed expectations. I don't think I've ever seen an exhibition at the British Museum before so can't comment on the difference between the old exhibition space and the new Sainsbury galleries but you can't go  to far wrong with rectangular boxes.

The biggest problem with these headlining exhibitions is how many people want to go along to them, given the so so reviews it might be slightly less crowded in a few weeks but today was sold out and even timed entry slots can only do so much. We didn't opt for an audio guide (£16.50 for a ticket, none of those leaflet things which run you through the exhibition like a mini guide that EVERYONE else gives you, an extra £4.50 for the audio guide, and then straight into a gift shop, and frankly the BM could have better toilet facilities - they have great stuff but it's never been my favourite museum) but a lot of people did which meant there were bottle necks all the way along where everybody who'd gone in at the same time tried to look at the same thing. Because there were so many people it was also quite difficult to see the little boards that identify what you're looking at (which without an audio guide you really want to do) and nobody should be allowed into a busy exhibition wearing a bulky rucksack.

Downside disposed of it's an exhibition that was worth the wait. I liked the dark grey boxy space, I loved that as you walk into the first room you hear (what The Guardian article tells me are) sagas in old Norse. The Guardian critic thought that they would have been better in translation but I think that would be distracting, you can't stop and listen very easily, and in a room full of people having quite reasonable conversations about what they're looking at you wouldn't hear much anyway, as it is it's pleasingly evocative without being intrusive. I liked the fairly stark presentation of the objects as well, heaps of silver and gold, brooches that ranged from the practical to the impractically ostentatious, swords - including killed swords that had been deliberately bent out of shape before being buried with their owners, axe heads, spear tips, scales and weights - all inviting you to look at them and consider them. The killed swords were oddly affecting, they seemed much more personal than most of the rest of the things on display, some were simply bent, but one had been coiled round in a spiral which must have taken some doing.

One thing that I theoretically knew but was still surprised by was the sheer scale of Viking trade and influence. Nearly identical objects turning up all over Europe, materials from even further afield ending up back in the Viking heartlands, hack silver which demonstrates a very practical attitude towards currency exchange, things which have Viking and Celtic motifs, and a few things clearly pinched from original owners and considered too attractive to be hacked up for currency all demonstrate a trading empire of truly impressive scale.

All of this was made possible by the boats and Roskilde 6 - the largest Viking ship found is absolutely the star of the show, as you enter the hall (which is almost to small for the boat - it's that big) it's to the sound of waves, once you're in there it's the sound of a Shetland man talking about tradition Shetland boats (this was a nice surprise for me but proved the point about something you understand but can only half hear being distracting) which are near descendants of the Viking boats. Seeing that ship was everything I hoped it might be - there isn't an awful lot left of it but the cradle it sits in fills in the blanks. I will say it again - it's huge, and very, very, impressive (I was impressed). I'm assuming this was a meant for a warship rather than for trade - even as a ghost it had an air of threat to it. It also held an echo of all those epics and sagas the Vikings have left behind for us.

The reason for going to The Vikings on a Sunday at the beginning of it's run (which was never going to be the best time to try and avoid crowds) was so that we could also catch the end of The Georgians at the British Library. This was also the first time I'd been to a BL exhibition and very impressive it was too. I wish I'd seen it earlier, it's a much quieter affair than the Vikings but full of enjoyable details including a suggested walk through surrounding London on the back of the (free) brochure that came with the ticket and just generally helps bring the Georgian city come alive in my imagination.


  1. I was really interested to hear about this Viking exhibition, especially the 'killed swords'. Given the difficulty in forging anything in those days, wouldn't it have made more sense for them to keep the swords as trophies, maybe even use them in battle? Your account brought to mind the Jorvik Museum in York, where I took my daughters when they were small. The smells and sounds were so convincing that my youngest produced equally convincing screams of terror! Thanks for a fascinating account.

  2. As far as I can gather the we're not to sure why swords were ceremoniously killed but the thinking is it might have been to dissuade grave robbers when swords were known to have been buried and for when a sword was particularly identified with it's owner and he might not have wanted it passed on for any reason. I'm not sure why I found them so moving but I did. Maybe because these destroyed swords felt like the most personal objects in the whole exhibition. My parents took me to Jorvik when I was small too (30 years ago?) I loved it in all it's smelly detail!