Horns are overrated. This exhibition is not.
Wednesday, December 18, 11am. I’m all jittery as I walk in the Canadian Museum of History. You see, the sword-wielding, fur-wearing, helmeted bearded man on the billboard outside the museum has been staring at me for the past few weeks. With snow twirling around in the sign’s grey sky, he seems to be challenging me to come see him, if I dare. Because the man (let’s call him Sven!) is a Viking and everybody knows that Vikings sail around to world to rampage and kill and bring back slaves. Sven is a Viking and Vikings are scary.
In the hall leading to the exhibition, created by Sweden’s Statens historiska museet (the sleek and impeccable design just confirms its origins), I first notice the huge menacing silhouettes on the wall, holding axes and swords, in full action mode. I can almost feel the cold Scandinavian winter wind in my face. Howe'ver, these silhouettes are merely the “shadows” of (bi-dimensional) people like you and me (give or take a thousand years) going about their everyday lives. Men, women, children, of all social classes, are here to greet us and no one seems about to rip my head off to make a cup out of my skull. Even the ones that seem ready for combat look like they’re about to ask me for my passport and reason for visiting. They are surely not relatives of Sven, the blood-thirsty warrior!
Mrs. Bianca Gendreau, manager at the Canadian Museum of History, explains that this exhibition wants to debunk the myth surrounding these peoples’ reputation, reputation that is greatly exaggerated and often just plain wrong. Because if there were indeed men (and women) who went on rampages thoughout the known world, most people were calmly working the fields back home. I am told that art played a very important role, mostly as decoration, I am shown objects of everyday life such as combs (yep! The mighty Vikings combed their hair!), jewellery, utensils, tools. An island shows many objects that were found in graves and many of them come from faraway lands, where the Vikings had travelled and established ties. For example, a statue of Buddha coming from what is now northern India and seashells from the Arabic Peninsula are showcased. I spent long minutes captivated by the screen where an animated map explained where these objects originally came from and where they were found. Before going any further, I have to explain that maps are a passion of mine. Add to that the animated part and you just lost me for a while. Considering the exhibition has quite a few of maps (animated or not), I was in for a treat.
Acting like a Viking
By the way, and that will be confirmed by several panels throughout the exhibition, the word “Viking” didn’t refer to a unified people but more to an action, more specifically going on raids or commercial treks abroad. Some people “went out as Vikings” or “acted like Vikings” all over Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle-East and yes, North America. But not everybody was fond of acting like a Viking, no! There are tales of people actually defending their communities against such warriors, right there in Scandinavia!
Acting like a Viking is pretty much the point of this exhibition, only what you are seeking is knowledge and the only things you are about to destroy are your preconceived ideas about Vikings. I won’t go through all I’ve learned here; you’d be reading until tomorrow morning.
Howe'ver, there are things that I just have to talk about, like the aforementioned animated map and the many interactive activities that are offered on touch screens, like dressing a character according to his (or her) social status. Not as easy as it sounds! You can also dig virtual ground to better understand the archaeological process involved in unearthing the exhibited artefacts, watch a cool multimedia presentation on the members of the Nordic Pantheon (Odin, Thor, Frigg, Tyr and others), learn about the Völvas, the Norns and the Valkyries, these women sent by Odin to invite worthy warriors to Valhalla or spare the lives of others.
Of course, certain artefacts stood the test of time better than others. Those made of stone and metal are still in pretty good shape (even if the swords aren’t as sharp as they once were, I wouldn’t want anyone to swing one my way!), what was once wood is now… gone. In spite of that, the exhibition’s designers were able to recreate a boat using only original parts. How, you ask? I’ll let you think about it. You’ll have the answer when you visit!
One of this show’s greatest qualities is that there’s no specific order in which to visit it. One can go from one station to the other as one pleases. There are huge, superb photographs on the walls for all to admire and the younger ones will enjoy taking part in the many hands-on daily workshops and most of all, one will learn that the horned-helmet fearless giant is a fairly recent invention. If Sven turned out to be a warrior (which seems more and more unlikely), his helmet probably looked more like the one showcased near the exit. Next to it is a pair of horns that one can move against the helmet to project a familiar shadow on the wall. For if the Vikings’ reputation has been distorted through the centuries, just like the helmet’s shadow on the wall, the mark they have left on our collective psyche remains fully jusitified nonetheless.
To complete your visit, catch the movie Vikings at the IMAX Theatre. Very much worth it!
Looking for other activities after your visit? You'll find them at www.outaouaistourism.com!