Popular Vikings for the International Masses. Thoughts After a Visit to Sweden’s The Viking Museum

Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my visit to the Museum of Wrecks in Stockholm, Sweden, which opened its doors in the fall of 2021. Next door to the Museum of Wrecks is another museum with ambitions to widen the visitor’s experience, namely The Viking Museum.

The Viking Museum originally opened its doors in 2017 under the name Vikingaliv. In 2019, it rebranded itself and took the name The Viking Museum with the intention of catering to international tourists.

While the intention is to cater to international tourists, the goal of The Viking Museum is not to become another tourist trap that trades off Viking-inspired kitsch. Instead, the goal is to present the Viking Age from a scholarly, scientific, and critical point of view. The idea is to present the Viking Age the way it was lived in Scandinavia with people struggling to make a living while a select few occasionally went on raids abroad or permanently moved to another place.

I went to The Viking Museum with great curiosity because I wanted to see how (if) they had managed to reach their goal.

I went to The Viking Museum with great curiosity because I wanted to see how (if) they had managed to reach their goal. The first thing I encountered when I stepped inside the doors was a flight of stairs with a timeline. On each step was a year that counted down to the beginning of the Viking Age at the top of the stairs. My stomach sank when I noticed two grammatical errors in the sentences in English as I walked up the steps, and then it sank further when the final step announced that the Viking Age began with the raid on Lindisfarne in 793. Placing the starting point of the Viking Age at Lindisfarne is the Anglo-centric view of the Vikings without connection to the Viking Age in Scandinavia.

Notice the grammatical errors on the two top steps of the stairs: “Vikings founds Dublin”
and “The Viking Age begin.”
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

At the top of the stairs, I entered the exhibit proper. The trepidation I felt while walking up the stairs disappeared when among the first things I saw was a timeline with a discussion about what was the Viking Age that also placed the Viking Age in a wider world context. I then moved on and encountered the life-size reconstruction of a Viking Age man based on a tenth-century skeleton excavated at the town of Sigtuna just north of Stockholm. The Viking Museum has named him Leifur.

Leifur.
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

Once again, the exhibit goes against the grain because Leifur is not your stereotypical tall, muscular, and bearded Viking ready for battle. He is a regular man of medium-height, not particularly bulky. He is a farmer as most Viking Age Scandinavians were. But based on what we know about Viking Age society, he was a farmer ready to use violence when necessary.

Once again, the exhibit goes against the grain because Leifur is not your stereotypical tall, muscular, and bearded Viking ready for battle. He is a regular man of medium-height, not particularly bulky. He is a farmer as most Viking Age Scandinavians were. But based on what we know about Viking Age society, he was a farmer ready to use violence when necessary.

Further in, I came upon interactive screens where I could push buttons and have the screen come alive with information about the different roles men and women had in Viking Age society. Screens of this kind occurred throughout the exhibit, providing extra information in addition to the physical exhibit. There was also a corner for children to touch and play with replicas of Viking Age objects. Norse religion was represented through the stunning art work of Johan Egerkrans.

The exhibit ended in a short corridor decorated with head shots of the characters in History’s TV-show Vikings. I found the inclusion of these photos puzzling. Does this mean that The Viking Museum endorses the show, which is known to take liberties with the Viking Age source material? Or is it meant as a transition to the downstairs portion of the museum where visitors are taken on the adventure ride Ragnfrid’s Saga about the life and adventures of a fictional Viking Age family?

My final stop before I left was the gift shop, which I found to be chock-full of interesting stuff. I ended up buying quite a few things, among them Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom’s book on the connection between the creation of the Viking Age and Swedish nineteenth-century masculinity ideals, which at the time of my visit was hot off the presses of the publisher Historiska Media.

My visit to The Viking Museum proved to be a much more positive experience than I had anticipated. Similar to the Museum of Wrecks, The Viking Museum pushes the boundaries of what a museum can be. Neither museum is focused on actual artifacts; instead, focus lies on epistemology, that is to say, what we know and how we know what we know. To present the Viking Age in all its complexities, I believe this is a productive route to take. Scandinavia during what now is called the Viking Age was a civilization that needs to be taken in as a whole, not in parts. That is to say, if you only focus on the medieval texts about the Viking Age or if you only focus on excavated artifacts, you will only see a fraction of what the Viking Age was about.

The goal of The Viking Museum is to bring state-of-the-art research about the Viking Age to the masses, and the museum does so successfully. Much of the research on the Viking Age available in English lags behind what is happening among experts and scholars in Scandinavia because of the language barrier between Scandinavian scholars and publications in English. Here, The Viking Museum communicates recent interdisciplinary findings directly to the international public.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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