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Victoria, meet the Vikings: so much more than wild men killing people

Vikings exhibit at Royal B.C. Museum opens on Friday
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Wednesday: Visitors check out the exhibits during a sneak preview of Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends, which opened Friday and continues to Nov. 11 at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Fictional Vikings are plundering TV audiences, movies and books but the Royal B.C. Museum’s newest exhibit brings to life the historical people behind the gory entertainment.

Cable television series, such as Vikings, or the 1958 movie with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, focus on warfare, raiding and violence during the Viking age, which spans roughly 750 to 1100.

But the travelling museum exhibit, Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends, includes more than 500 artifacts, jewelry, weapons, tools and clothing to bring nuance to the story of a complex people. The exhibit opens Friday and continues to Nov. 11.

Kent Andersson, of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm, producer of the show, said in an interview Wednesday that he hopes people who see the exhibit will leave with a more in-depth, human perspective of the Vikings.

“They are so much more than wild men from the North killing people and priests,” said Andersson, in Victoria to help set up the exhibit. “The archeological sources show a much more complicated picture.”

For example, much of today’s fiction and entertainment depicts Vikings holding to a religion of numerous gods, such as Thor and Odin and Freyja. They also depict it as a religion opposed to Christianity.

One artifact in the exhibit is a small, silver pendant representing the hammer of Thor, God of Thunder. But the tiny hammer is covered with crosses, indicating a blending of Christian religion with Norse tradition. It also demonstrates the Viking willingness to adopt and even create new gods.

Other artifacts are proof of the great distances the Vikings travelled, setting up colonies in Greenland, Iceland and Canada. They also travelled and settled Russia and traded in the Middle East.

The exhibit has a small bronze statue of Buddha. It was found in a Viking archeological dig in Sweden but analysis traced its origin to India. “Travelling that distance and time spent away, that changes people. They must have changed when they met other people and took new wives and brought them home,” said Andersson.

Erin McGuire, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria who teaches Viking history, said the fascination with Vikings has been around for a long time. But in the past few decades it has grown larger, via TV shows and books.

McGuire said she couldn’t watch the Vikings TV series because she became impatient with inaccuracies, such as the women’s costumes. But she has historian colleagues who are enthusiastic about the show. They say the stories are very Viking in their characters and plots, so she will give it another shot.

McGuire said she believes modern humans are going through a time of wistful longing for old-style, simple heroes. “It’s about looking for heroes but maybe not the tech heroes of our modern age,” she said.

“I think it’s a bit of nostalgia for a simpler time.”

She has heard history buffs tell stories of their heroes and talk about living lives that are worthy of stories. “And that was very big in the Viking age, that you are the kind of person people will tell stories about,” McGuire said.

Jack Lohman, head of the Royal B.C. Museum, said he hopes the Viking exhibit will be able to draw on the fascination with Vikings.

The exhibit will demonstrate how new display designs, such as low-level cases for children, touch-screen computers and video, can make history accessible to a wide audience. “We have family audience for the museum but we also have a very educated audience,” Lohman said. “I want this to be a hallmark of new exhibit design.”

Paul Nursey, head of Tourism Victoria, said the museum has had blockbuster exhibits in the past. The Leonardo DaVinci exhibit in 1999, while not a natural fit with British Columbia, drew nearly 300,000 out-of-town visitors.

The Vikings exhibit can be the extra draw to encourage people to put Victoria on their travel map, Nursey said. “And when something is here for only a limited time it can move that trigger from ‘must go someday’ to ‘we have to go now.’ ”


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