I recently had the pleasure of traveling to the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia for a business trip. There was fortunately time to visit a new traveling exhibit at its first stop (Royal BC Museum) on a tour across North America: Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends.
The exhibit is co-produced by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria. The exhibit space is wide and open, leaving plenty of room for visitors to wander and linger. Seating is built into some exhibit case pieces, allowing for moments of respite while taking in the vast amount of information on hand. The exhibit furniture is made up of clean, white, straight lined or curved containers and walls, obviously meant to be easy to pack up and ship. However, the furniture does an effective job providing ample safe exhibit space for the objects, as well as good space for information text. Objects are well supported and clearly labeled.
Labels featured information in the following format: Name of object, description, place it was found, and catalog number. I found this to provide sufficient information, however, I would have liked to have read the estimated time period of the object. Since most of the objects on display were inorganic, I know it would be difficult to place specific pieces of jewelry, tools, etc. in specific time frames. I do feel however it would help those interested in continuing research to have a rough starting date (i.e. 900-1000 AD) when observing a particular object.
The exhibit is divided up into theme areas, such as everyday life, religion, death practices, craftsmanship, and trade. I am not an expert on Viking history or that of the Peoples belonging to Scandinavia. This information was both detailed, and a summary for me. I felt like a visitor could go through sections quickly and get the gist of the history being shown, but someone more curious could sit down and really take it in. This was a success. Being able to catch the public moving through quickly on their way to the next exhibit space, and satisfying those deeply interested in the subject is a challenge. I walked away with some new thoughts on Vikings, and an appreciation for the cultures shown.
Sprinkled throughout the theme areas were interactive equipment. One space featured a bench with localized speakers where a listener could hear mythological stories being told. Another invited visitors via touch screen computer to help dress an everyday person from Viking times . A quiz via touch screen at the end of the exhibit featured a single player mode and one to compete against a partner on what was learned during the visit. There were also several plaques spaced around other exhibits in the Royal BC Museum that asked questions relating objects in other galleries to the Vikings exhibit. This was a neat feature that I believe will get visitors interested in the Vikings exhibit even as they explore the rest of the facility. These interactive spaces broke up the repetition of case and text that can make museums a drag for some visitors, and helped relate information in different, interesting ways.
In general I find that some interactive spaces are hardly ever used, or no funding exists to repair them if broken. When that happens valuable space or money is absorbed or wasted. Here, the interactive spaces were being used respectfully by visitors, who seemed to be enjoying the stories or seeing what clothing people may have worn in 1000 AD. The equipment was in good repair, which speaks well for those watching over it day-to-day, and those transporting it to new stops for the duration of the trip. Everything looked well maintained. Interactive spaces, when used well, can help the mind change gears and provide a welcome respite from endless text.
Overall, I found Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends to be satisfying, engaging and rewarding. Visitors were engrossed in looking at objects, reading, interacting, and talking about what they found. My two criticisms would be the lack of dates on the objects and the gift shop. I feel that even a rough time frame would help to place the objects in one’s mind. The store at the end of the exhibit seemed a bit over the top, being filled with plastic swords, horned helmets and toys. I understand many children might want a souvenir after hearing about Vikings, but it seemed to go against the message of humanizing their story. I do understand that money from these does support the Royal BC Museum. Yet, these are minor issues. The charm of the storytelling of myths, the wonder of the objects (from swords to cookware), and the relaxing flow of information made for a delightful visit. I greatly encourage you to visit this exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, or anywhere you may find it in the future.
My favorite takeaway from the exhibit: That Norse peoples incorporated their old mythological religious symbols into their new Christian art as the faith spread.
Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends runs from May 16 to November 11, 2014 at the Royal BC Museum.