Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Vikings at the British Museum: "great ship but where's the story?"

Vikings at the British Museum: great ship but where's the story?
"The longship at the heart of the British Museum's new Viking exhibition is spectacular – but the rest of the show is a bloodless collection of bowls and brooches" writes Jonathan Jones. I've not seen this, and won't but I am not sure I'd agree with what Mr Jones says here. He obviously wants more blood, and the trend in exhibitions (which the BM pioneered with their earlier Viking exhibitions as I recall) has always been to move away from an image based on the sagas and chronicles of atrocities written by monkish victims. It does sound a bit though as if the exhibition is going more for decontextualised objects (the portable antiquities) rather than presenting a culture using them. Is that what's happened here? I'll try and get the catalogue anyway.

I'm intrigued by the mention of:
cases of smallish, similar objects throw visitors straight into some thorny problems of archaeology. How do Viking artefacts compare with things being made at the same time by Baltic and Slav peoples? One of the first cases offers a chance to find that out.
I suppose it depends how well those "thorny problems of archaeology" are articulated, and this is directly related to my concerns about the narrativisation of portable antiquities by everyone's favourite antiquities Scheme. The question of the difference between something made in Scandinavia and something made in Scandinavian style elsewhere is fundamental to the understanding of the site I am working on at the moment, a cemetery on the lower Vistula with 'Viking' (but are they really) objects in the inhumations. I am curious what that case looks like, anyone going?

1 comment:

Jakob said...

As I understand there has been some slight changes from the version of the exhibition I saw in Copenhagen last year but I had mixed feelings about it. It was a great opportunity to see artifacts from a wide area but at some point I thought: "Do I really need to see that many hoards of hacksilver?"

In general it feelt like a collection of pretty things but offered very little on how vikings lived. Some might have been hidden in the loads of texts you could look up about the different objects but it was at the same time to much and to little. To much for an exhibition, to little to learn enough about objects that really got me curious. And seriously, an exhibition in 2013 (or 2014) should not mainly be a collection of stuff in display cases with numbers and corresponding texts next to them (even if the text is on tablet computers). Don't show me hoard after hoard but tell me how silver was used in trade, why we find hoards and how we know this.

To be fair, the intention of the exhibition wasn't to explain how viking farmes lived in Scandinavia but I missed that.

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