Vikings: Life and Legend - reviews of British Museum show

Mar 12, 2014

Museum's Vikings exhibition tells a stirring tale of a culture that still has the power to shock and awe

The Lewis Chessmen, berserkers. Copyright British Museum.

What you need to know
The British Museum's new Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition is a fascinating insight into a culture that still has the capacity to awe, say critics. The exhibition, focusing on the Viking Age from the 8th to 11th Centuries, was developed with the National Museum of Denmark and the National Museums in Berlin.

It features a range of swords, axes, coins, jewellery, poetry and religious images that reveal an international Viking culture spanning four continents. The centrepiece of the exhibition is reconstruction of a 37-metre-long Viking warship featuring its original timbers. Runs until 22 June.

What the critics like
"Lock up your children and tether your wives: the Vikings have come," says Jeremy Lazell in the Sunday Times. The star turn of the show is the Viking warship but there are also never-seen-before artefacts including the entire Vale of York Hoard, complete with arm-rings, bullion and coins from across the Viking world.

The great dragon ship dominates this stirring show, and even in its hollowed and reimagined state, it "retains a good deal of the original 11th-century shock and awe", says Tim Adams in The Guardian. But the exhibition also pays its dues to the profound depths of Norse mythology and reveals a formidable culture of bling, with great rope-like chains of silver and gold.

"The fascination resides not in the artistry of the artefacts but in the way of life that they illustrate," says Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times. The overall narrative is clear and shows how the Vikings were raiders, pirates and merchants, travelling as far as Russia and Byzantium and creating settlements across Northern Europe that outlined their own empire.

What they don't like
"The presentation will hardly set your Nordic viscera surging," says Mark Hudson in the Daily Telegraph. You'll leave this exhibition undeniably better informed about the Vikings but the starkly contemporary design robs the proceedings of any sense of atmosphere, romance or mystery.

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The Viking exhibition is rather an expensive way to discover that the interest is not in the artifacts but in the overall narrative - overall, a disappointment.