Vikings are conquering North America. Families love the cartoon heroes of “How to Train Your Dragon” and football fans cheer for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. However, the groundbreaking exhibit, “Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends,” at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, B.C., proves there is more to the famed warriors than just horns and helmets.
“Viking stories are usually told around savagery, raids and conquests, but this portrays a more complex picture,” says Jack Lohman, Royal BC Museum CEO. “There is a lot of new information and 550 precious objects never before seen in North America.”
The Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria collaborated to produce the exhibition. It overviews the Viking Age approximately spanning 750-1100 A.D. Artifacts include iconic weaponry such as swords, axes and spears. However, personal and household items — like jewelry, combs and cooking kettles — depict conventional, daily lives. Numerous interactive exhibits engage visitors through the use of touch, sound and unique visuals.
“Over the years, their history has been simplified beyond belief,” Lohman says. “I think the public is ready to understand the bigger and more complicated issues surrounding Viking culture.”
Viking exploration: Raiders and traders
A crowd regularly gathers on the museum’s outdoor plaza to snap selfies alongside a replica Viking ship. Visitors marvel at its modest size given the larger-than-life seafaring legends.
“Everyone’s immediate thought is about long ships and pillaging. I kind of thought that, too, before seeing the show,” says Lorraine Skinner, a resident of Victoria, B.C. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All of the information is assembled so you can learn in person rather than reading about it on a computer.”
The exhibit showcases the Vikings as both raiders and traders. Iron fetters and axe heads confirm an often brutal existence. However, unexpected objects — a 6th century Buddha figurine from India — surprise many visitors.
“The Buddha completely throws people off. What on earth is that doing coming out of a Viking grave in Sweden?” Lohman says. “These were not just marauders. They were great traders with a remarkable reach through the Russian rivers to the Arab world (modern Middle East), Byzantium and Newfoundland (easternmost Canada).”
Boats were critical for travel, but also significant as part of funeral rituals. The wooden vessels were burned as a cremation rite, so few intact examples remain. However, recovered iron nails and rivets create one of the show’s most talked about exhibits.
“My favorite part is where they’ve hung the nails so it creates the outline of a ship’s hull when you stand in the right place. It’s like magic,” Skinner says.
Engage with history
Inevitably there is the desire to grasp a sword, hoist a sail and go on an adventure with Thor. “Vikings” is an interactive experience that satisfies the imagination.
“We’re not a fine arts museum. We’re a very family-based museum and want to engage our audience,” Lohman says. “There is an opportunity to touch a Viking sword (replica) and feel the weight. Creating emotional bonds with the viewer is part of the way people learn.”
A section of replica Viking clothing challenges visitors to create outfits befitting different occupations from warriors to farmers. Players challenge each other to a game of Norse Hnefatafl, reminiscent of checkers. People congregate in a seated “story time” area to listen to prerecorded tales from Norse mythology such as “The Apples of Idunn” and “Thor Takes a Bite.”
“There really is something for everyone. I saw big, grown guys reading about warfare and hoisting the sword,” Skinner says. “The kids love being able to touch the cords (replicas of Viking horse-hair ropes) and spelling their names with runes — like Scrabble for Vikings.”
Those thirsting for more Vikings knowledge should see the accompanying IMAX documentary film “Vikings: Journey to the New Worlds.” Special events, such as academic lectures and Wonder Sunday family presentations, are scheduled throughout the run.
“It’s unusual to have an exhibit as extensive as this. The only other chance would be a trip to Scandinavia, but even then many of these objects aren’t displayed in museums,” Lohman says. “This is a rare opportunity to see the real thing.”
See the Vikings
“Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends” runs through Nov. 11 at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, B.C. Open daily, hours vary. For tickets and pricing information, go to royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.