Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Contextual Studies. With Added Viking.

I was in Sweden over the summer and took some time out to go to a re-creation of a Viking settlement at Foteviken. I, and my kids, loved it. Smiths were forging nails, tanners were scraping hides, cooks were boiling up huge vats of stew. We felt like time-travellers. Towards the exit we saw a figurehead from a Viking longship.

It looked strangely familiar, and, back in London, it became apparent why.

In the British Museum I stumbled across an original figurehead from a  Viking longship, looking uncannily like the one in Sweden. I'd seen it before.

So the question is, which one is the most significant? 

The one in Sweden is a fake, made a few years ago. But it sits in context, with the beach just below, the gulls wheeling overhead and the wind in the long grasses. It requires no great stretch of imagination for us to see and feel how life was, and how important this figurehead must have been. We're inspired and engaged, something visceral has happened, even if we don't know anything about the fearsome head. This strong emotional engagement can be the catalyst for a lifetime of interest that might lead anywhere. It provides impetus.

In the BM, there's a neat label describing it, so we have a lot of information, but it's presented in the neo-classical context of a London museum, replete with wall-eyed tourists wondering where the nearest McDonalds might be. It feels sanitised and lost. Something wild has been caged.

This was the same problem that I felt the BM had with it's Viking exhibition earlier in the year. Lots of information - no inspiration. Bloodless. Which is a terrible fate to befall anything to do with Vikings.

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