The Scribblaire recently visited the Vikings: life and legend exhibition, showing until 22nd June at the British Museum. As well as having the remains of the longest Viking ship ever discovered, the exhibition is the first to be held in the new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre at the Museum, so was on the list of ‘must visit’ events in 2014.
The British Museum recommends advance booking for this exhibition so it wasn’t a surprise to find quite a large queue when we arrived. However, as we are Members of the BM, we were able to fast track past the line of eager punters and went straight through using a specially allocated desk and walkway. This is a great improvement from the previous exhibition gallery and certainly provides the feeling of privilege (and smugness).
On entering the gallery we encountered the same crowded scene that used to greet visitors to the old exhibition space. The mass of visitors in this first area gives the impression that the whole exhibition is going to be horribly busy, which used to be true of the previous space. However, once through the first couple of galleries the space begins to open up and the exhibits can be seen in their full glory. The first few rooms display artefacts including some incredible swords and stunning-but-eye-poppingly-huge Viking brooches. These are so big that it is almost impossible to imagine how anyone could wear them. The Scribblaire imagines that the larger the brooch, the more macho the Viking warrier was – not least because they would have needed to be quite strong to stand up straight whilst wearing one!
After wandering through the fabulous displays, the gallery leads through a corridor up a slope. A left turn at the top opens up to a bright, vast space. This is the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery which will provide space for the BM to borrow more large-scale items – something that wasn’t possible before now. The centre-piece of the room is the 37 metre-long ship set in front of a large screen with an image of the wide open sea. Although there isn’t much of the original boat, what there is sits within a full-scale reconstruction made of metal strips. it really is very striking. Along one side, overlooking the ship, there are several television screens showing how the boat was constructed and some of its history. This was a fantastic addition to the display and attracted the attention of most of the children who passed by. Around the rest of the room there are additional exhibits including a pile of Viking skeletons found in a grave near Weymouth. Not surprisingly, children also found this interesting! There is an unusual mix of pagan and Christian artefacts displayed together and the famous Lewis Chessmen are also on show. The size of this gallery means that it is easy to wander around at leisure to view the exhibits despite the number of visitors in the room.
At the end of the exhibition an exit door leads through to the obligatory shop filled with Viking-related offerings. We were tempted by the horn vessels, imagining ourselves swigging wine from them. We managed to resist temptation though and instead headed up to the Members’ Room for a more civilised beverage in a glass.
The Scribblaire would like to revisit this exhibition again before it closes, mainly to see a little more of the first couple of galleries which were too crowded. Being a Member provides free entrance to all of the exhibitions, so going more than once isn’t too much of an extravagance. I will also be going along to Ancient Lives: new discoveries (from 22 May) to see new 3D images of the famous BM Mummies. Also of interest is the forthcoming exhibition of German medals from WWI and the famous Sutton Hoo hoard, now re-housed in the recently opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100.
The Scribblaire highly recommends Vikings: life and legend. A visit to the British Museum is never a disappointment.
(photograph copied from the BM website)