Vikings (at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia)

Blockbuster archaeology exhibitions are increasingly challenging to mount. Do you market the show as if it was (and in this case is) a Netflix series? Then do you show objects for their intrinsic fascination or offer some kind of narrative ? The Vikings come laden with historical baggage. Yet the archaeology, being some of the most advanced in world history, provides a wonderful window on the history, life and times of the Scandinavians as they fully entered European history.

A picture that says all

This show at the Franklin Institute is a skillful attempt to deal with these conflicting challenges for an American audience. The short introductory film is ponderous in the extreme and largely ignored by the throng of families intent on eying every object. Their fascination was heartening. Indeed, the authentic objects, mostly from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, caused a gridlock in the first two galleries. Jewellery, soapstone bowls, swords and the like are well lit and laconically described. (The more I stare at these friends for decades I realize that most belong to the broader streams of Carolingian and post-Carolingian European material culture, rarely found in Italy save for a few exceptional places.)

The last two galleries were a greater surprise. Skuldelev 6, the massive long-boat from Roskilde, was reconstructed in all its majesty. With an eye-pad reconstruction you could be rowing or sailing in this leviathan. I liked the rune hologram too, simple yet cleverly contrived. But best of all was the Jellinge stone in the last gallery – or rather a replica of Harald’s great later 10th -century sculpture painted gaily, as we believe it to have been, stunningly vivid.

Becoming Christian, the Jellinge stone in colour

The Vikings were first and foremost enterprising north Europeans, great traders from the moment commerce revived in the Merovingian North Sea. They were no less sensitive to the political, industrial and cultural directions of the Rhineland. Only their long resistance to the Church set them apart and earned the enmity of the Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Irish. What made them special, a woman asked me near the beginning of the show: “They were hedge-fund managers and start-up entrepreneurs of their age, immensely adventurous.” They were, as the Jellinge Stone shows, exceptional artists too. Somehow this narrative of exceptionalism gets lost in the Netflix age which prefers a Victorian narrative of Us and Them to pack in an audience.

Rowing the Skuldelev 6 warship

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