The British Museum – ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’, and the newly reopened Room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100)

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Yesterday I went to London to visit the British Museum. As an adult this is only the second time I’ve been, with not living in London, which is remiss of me as most of it is free and it is even more impressive and welcoming now they’ve roofed over the courtyard with a beautiful light-filled dome.

I had booked to see the special exhibition on the Vikings (6th March – 22nd June 2014) but I also wanted to revisit Room 41, which has recently had a ‘major redisplay’ (as the Museum website / blog calls it). The Museum says it’s 30 years since they’ve put on a major exhibition about the Vikings. Since then our view of them has changed considerably ie we no longer focus just on the marauding and pillaging and violence. The view in Denmark has also changed – they don’t want the Vikings to be the only thing they are known for – so for your information they are also great on renewable energy (loads of wind farms which I think look great, but I like pylons too!), and they have lovely coastal areas, and nature reserves like the Wadden Sea (which I recently cycled around).

The Viking exhibition was put on with the help of museums in Denmark and Germany, and the main focus is the biggest Viking ship ever found, at an estimated 37 metres. There is lots of information on how their boats were constructed, seafaring and trading, and how we know about the boats (from stories, burials and shipwrecks etc). You aren’t permitted to take photos in the exhibition, but there is a detailed ‘catalogue’ (hardback £40, paperback £25) you could look out for online (I’m sure there will soon be copies on eBay!), or buy in the Museum shop. Personally I opted for the book on Viking ships as a memento of the exhibition – which I thought was very good value at £5. It is written by the British Museum curator who was involved in staging the exhibition, and includes quite a few images of objects and images I actually saw there.

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I really enjoyed the exhibition – it reinforced and extended what I already knew, and I’m fascinated in this period of history in North Western Europe. However, I recently (last week) visited Ribe in Denmark with my boyfriend for a few days, where we went to the Viking Centre (with reconstructed Viking houses from different periods) and the Viking Museum. Beautiful Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark, and was a Viking trading town from the 8th century. At the Viking Centre (http://www.ribevikingecenter.dk/en/home.aspx) one of the senior enactors, who described herself as something of a Viking era ‘geek’, told us she had seen the exhibition in Copenhagen before it came to England, and she thought there were some inaccuracies. She told us she was not impressed with the exhibition, but also admitted perhaps she knew so much already that it was not really aimed at her.

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Well I don’t know enough about the Vikings to be able to spot those kind of inaccuracies, but I do have my opinions about the early Anglo-Saxon era, as you will know if you have read earlier entries in this blog. So while I was at the Museum I also dropped in at the newly improved and re-opened Room 41, which houses the Anglo-Saxon Britain permanent display – with a focus on the Sutton Hoo boat burial ‘treasures’ and other informative and often spectacular finds from pagan graves.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/galleries/europe/gallery_41_europe_ad_300-1100.aspx

I wonder if the same British Museum curator responsible for the Viking Exhibition and the Viking ships book, ie Gareth Williams, is partly responsible for the content of these rooms too, as this seems to be his period of expertise, judging from his range of publications. Anyway, I was disappointed to find that the British Museum still goes along with the old mass migration after the withdrawal of the Romans explanation for the origins of the Anglo-Saxons.

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Here are two photos I took of the new display boards. OK, so the invasion hypothesis has quietly been dropped, but how long will it be before the British Museum admits that this emphasis on incoming Germanic peoples may not be correct either?

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We are constantly re-evaluating our views of ancient peoples, and new technologies available to archaeologists are increasing our knowledge, but there is a very slow filter down into the ‘story’ we the public are told. One problem is that the senior generation of archaeologists either a) don’t publish their research very quickly, or b) have too much power over the ‘story’, and aren’t ready to completely rethink their ideas, which in the case of the Anglo-Saxons is what is called for (even the name is not really appropriate in my view). It looks like the British Museum is also part of this cover-up – what a disappointment.

Of course all opinions on this blog are my own, and I may be entirely wrong! And don’t let this stop you going to the British Museum – it is brilliant and FREE. Everywhere you wander there are amazing things you’ve heard of and seen images of, and there they are (and often huge) – it is a really WOW place if you are into world history, archaeology, art and culture. When we were in Denmark we had to pay for the museums we visited, but in Britain they are paid for through taxes and sponsorship etc – though museums all push more and more for voluntary donations from visitors as their support lines are cut by a cash-strapped government.

Of course one problem with the British Museum is that it was built on the proceeds of the British Empire, quite literally, and furthermore many of its exhibits were basically plundered from ancient buildings abroad, like the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens that the Museum and the British Government have refused to return to Greece. This kind of politics is very much missing from the display boards in the Museum, or its website. No doubt there are people who want the Anglo-Saxon ‘story’ in Room 41 re-writing, but we the public are not likely to be privy to the machinations that go on whenever a new exhibition is staged or the permanent displays rewritten. What a pity – personally that makes it all so much more interesting! But of course ordinary people have more of a voice now due to the internet – we can add our comments to websites and write blogs like this one – so let’s celebrate that at least.

 

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