Museum: The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of Visit: May 19, 2015
Vikings was produced by the Swedish History Museum and MuseumsPartner, and sponsored by both Viking Cruises and Discover. It was at the Field Museum from February 27-October 4, 2015. Explore more details at the fantastic exhibit website.
This exhibit was a delight to view, visit, and explore. It was beautifully produced, offered numerous touchscreens and interactive elements, and over 500 artifacts including some very pretty shiny things! As an archaeologist, I love all the shiny things! (Just kidding; I’m not Indiana Jones but I was a bit giddy when I recognized several artifacts included in my Master’s thesis research.)
I was extremely fortunate to have a tour of the exhibit with Susan Neill, the Exhibitions Project Manager at the Field Museum. Susan was extremely gracious and explained many facets of the exhibit, described a few artifacts, and the logistics of putting on such a magnificent (and large!) show.
She gave me an overview of the exhibit layout while pointing out some highlights including the skull with filed teeth and a magnificent gold and silver necklace with 35 matching pendants, one of her particular favorites due to the juxtaposition of Christian and Scandinavian symbols. When I asked about the exhibit layout, she explained that all of the exhibit cases came with the exhibit but were modular to accommodate different facilities and layout. The exhibit infrastructure was handsomely produced, with cases grouped thematically to provide context for carefully arranged objects. Each theme within the exhibit such as Religion or Domestic Life was well-illustrated but the transitions between each seemed a bit abrupt; likely due to the traveling and changing nature of this exhibit. Susan noted that it was relatively simple to install the exhibit, since part of the loan agreement included a team to install and re-pack the materials. This “simple” installation did have one complicated moment: the team did have to take off the main doors to the museum’s grand entrance for one of the replica ships. It wouldn’t fit on the museum’s freight elevator!
Susan also pointed out that none of the labels listed a date or date range, an omission noticed by many of the museum’s visitors. She explained that since most of the artifacts couldn’t have a specific date assigned, the date range published on the introductory panel served to cover the entire exhibit. This allowed for more effective allocation of label “real estate.” This somewhat risky decision was, in my opinion, a good move by the exhibit organizers to add contextual layers rather than just copy and paste a date range onto each label and text panel. Another notable feature was the design and high quality content of labels, which used a small photo of objects with a description, rather than a sketch and number system so common in many museums. This allowed visitors to clearly identify the object’s title and affiliated information. Grave goods from a specific grave were displayed together along with a sketch of their archaeological context in the grave. This presentation in conjunction with the label text allowed visitors to better interpret the objects on display.
An extraordinary aspect of this exhibit was the interpretive elements. A particular favorite of mine was the storytelling stations. In the middle of the exhibit layout, cushioned benches invited guests to sit next to speakers which played recordings of Norse folk tales and mythology. Not only was it an inviting feature that offered guests a place to sit and reflect on the grandeur of the exhibit, but the audio element allowed for an additional glimpse into the life of the Vikings. I wish that the audio element was offered with a choice of languages but as an ongoing recording, a language choice would have been difficult logistically. This storytelling feature supported the exhibit’s main goal to expand people’s views on Vikings.
Another fun activity was a board of magnetic tablets paired with an explanation of the runic alphabet. These panels invited visitors to spell their name or a special message in runes. There were certainly fierce elements of the culture represented in the swords, knives, and helmets on display, but the stories, touchable textile samples, and interactive board games helped to illuminate other elements of daily life. A take-home recipe card for unleavened barley bread was a nice touch and a way to include taste in a museum exhibit.
While the production of the exhibit made quite an impact, it paled in comparison to the actual artifacts themselves. One display in particular was extremely memorable: a collection of iron ship rivets suspended to create the clean and simple outline of a ship. The effort that went into boat construction by medieval Scandinavian peoples, and the effort to excavate the rivets by archaeologists was evocatively displayed in a hauntingly beautiful work of art. The objects representing crafts and creative arts were also extremely illustrative. Metal working, textile production, and agriculture were just a few procedures presented, but the displays included tools, molds, partially finished products, and completed items to fully represent the creative process.
Finally, my favorite display was the very last case before the exhibit gift shop. This included a replica helmet, and a set of cattle horns mounted on a rotating arm in front of the helmet. Visitors could move the arm up and down to “put” the horns on or off the helmet. This was a clever way to poke fun at the stereotypical portrayal of the vicious Viking warrior, and gently remind visitors that they had not seen any horned helmets in the entire exhibit. I wish this helmet and horns display had been mounted a bit higher so I could take a “Viking selfie” however it was relatively low to the ground.
As of May 2015, the Field Museum is the only U.S. facility scheduled to host this exhibit. Susan Neill was a delightful host and I want to thank her for the time and answers to my many questions. I even managed a perfect score on the exhibit’s closing touchscreen panel!
Explore the Field Museum if you visit Chicago; its expansive collection, beautiful building, scenic city views, and well-designed exhibits are sure to delight, entertain, and educate.
This review was originally published on Medievalists.net on June 14, 2015. Click here to see the original publication.