Vikings: The Exhibition by Steven Bereznai (museum exhibit review).

As ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ rocks theatres and the show ‘Vikings’ fills the small screen with rampaging Norsemen and women, ‘VIKINGS: The Exhibition’ at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM for short) in Canada promises fresh insight into the many ways this culture has impacted the modern imagination. It’s also the largest collection of Viking artefacts on display in North America.

Boat. Swedish History Museum

‘VIKINGS’ features interactive displays and nearly 500 original objects from the collections of the Swedish History Museum that provide a window into the lives of these legendary explorers, artisans and craftspeople.

This reconstruction of a Viking Age boat is from the Swedish History Museum. Photo by Steven Bereznai

That said, my main criticism of the exhibit is it relied too heavily on photographs. As my friend pointed out, it was not an ‘immersive’ experience. Admittedly, I am spoiled. I’ve traveled across Norway, where the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History features preserved traditional buildings in an open-air setting as well as the Viking Ship Museum, filled with reclaimed vessels from the Viking Age. I did appreciate the ROM’s two reconstructed Viking boats, the 13 foot Arby (3.95 metres), and the 32 foot Eik Sande (9.75 metres). Both vessels have been faithfully re-created using Viking processes and materials, providing visitors with insights into Norse boat-building techniques. These vessels added a bit of wow factor but where the exhibit really shines is in its informational content.

Norse comb. Swedish History Museum

Chris Hemsworth aside, Vikings are often portrayed as dirty and not caring about appearance. In fact, recovered combs, ear spoons, tweezers, and mirrors, all on display, suggest that Vikings were keen on grooming. There are written observations of the Norse bleaching their beards using lye and Viking men and women using eyeliner.

Sword. Swedish History Museum

Also, Scandinavians did not call themselves Vikings unless they were out on ‘a Viking’, known as a trade trip or raid. Using the word ‘Viking’ to describe all the people who lived across Scandinavia in the Viking Age is a modern invention.

Popular culture has done its share to further turn fiction into presumed fact. For example, the exhibit exposes the fallacy of the horned ‘Viking’ helmet. That first appeared in 1876, in Richard Wagner’s opera ‘The Ring Cycle’. ‘Hunding, one of the evil characters in the opera, wore a horned helmet as part of his costume. Even though the opera was not about the Vikings, this performance established the link between helmets, horns, Norse mythology and the Vikings, which continues today…despite being completely historically inaccurate.’

Valkyrie. Swedish History Museum

For myself, who was first introduced to Norse mythology through Marvel Comics, it was also interesting to get the non-sanitised version of their fascinating stories. For example, ‘Njal’s Saga’ describes how 12 Valkyries weave the end of a battle. ‘The threads in their loom were made of human intestines and the loom weights were the decapitated heads of men.’ It’s a little different than Disney’s take on Norse myths and while the ROM exhibit is not the same as going to Norway, it is a lot cheaper.

Photo: Brian Boyle, © ROM
On loan from the The Viking Ship Museum, Denmark

Steven Bereznai is the Amazon bestselling author of the YA dystopian novel ‘I Want Superpowers’ and ‘How A Loser Like Me Survived the Zombie Apocalypse’. You can share your thoughts with him on Twitter and Instagram

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