Horns of a Dilemma: Issues and Opportunities in Presenting the Viking Era Norse Culture in a Museum Context.

Neil Peterson

No Viking captain contemplating his first destination would feel more swamped with opportunities and risks then a museum curator today creating a new exhibit on the Viking era Norse. To best educate the public the exhibit designer must forge connections between the material presented and the museum’s patrons.The stronger the connections created the more likely the patron is to retain the information or follow it up at a later date.Yet to forge those connections the designer must deal first with the issues common to all presentations: budget, timeframes, museum philosophies on education, artefact display techniques, and audience demographics. Issues associated specifically with the Viking era such as modern hate group associations, socially unacceptable cultural norms, and a large number of audience preconceptions must also be considered. This paper reviews each of these items and then explores some of them as they appear in a current museum exhibit.

Standard Exhibit considerations

Curators and exhibit designers face certain standard problems for any exhibit being considered regardless of the topic involved. Although not the focus of this paper these problems will have an impact on the choices made and thus should be understood. Foremost among these is the issue of budget. Modern museum budgets are relatively small and subject to change as the political environment shifts. Almost every element of the exhibit will be impacted by the budget, renting exhibits, creating replicas, reproductions [1], text panels, and backdrops, as well as more abstract issues such as advertising and educational activities such as guest lecturers, or additional staff such as interpreters.[2]

Although less of a concern at larger museums the available display space will have an impact on the quantity and layout of the exhibit. The addition of the reconstructed boat when Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga was presented at the American Museum of Natural History[3] serves as an example both of the negative budget impact that filling a larger space can have and the positive opportunities it presents for producing a high impact exhibit.

Time has multiple impacts on exhibit creation. The length of time an exhibit will run will have budgetary impacts due to equipment, space, and artefact rental as well as additional staffing costs.A longer exhibit run allows fixed costs such as marketing to be amortized over a larger number of attendees while providing increased gate revenue. However there is a second element of time that must be considered in designing an exhibit – the time an average patron will spend viewing the exhibit. The more time a patron spends in the exhibit the more time is available for them to learn. A small community museum whose average visitor invests a couple of hours in each new exhibit may be able to create more complex exhibits that use this available time. Larger institutions also need to design for shorter visits.A visit to the Smithsonian or Canadian Museum of Civilization is often a twenty minute stop among a dozen other tourist spots seen in a single day visit.[4]

Beyond the basic exhibit considerations, there is the ongoing discussion on the purpose of a museum - a location to preserve and passively display historical artefacts or act as an educational institution. Beginning with the changing social norms in the 1960s that pushed for “social relevance”[5] Rawlins traces the development of educational trends in museums. With the prevalence of educational programs at museums today and phrases like “Develops, maintains, and communicates exhibits, programs and activities to further knowledge, critical understanding, appreciation and respect for human cultural achievements and human behaviour”[6] appearing in museum mandates this debate may at first glance appear to have been settled.

Unfortunately museums appear slow to react to changes in our understanding of educational theory. There is a tendency for the museum to carefully preserve and display the artefacts and educate with some auxiliary text. Implications of new educational theories such as Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences are slow to have an impact on exhibits. An improved connection with the patrons could be made by making better use of the available styles with which people absorb information.

Another consideration is that of the organization and presentation of artefacts.A common technique is to place individual items in cases with small identification cards. Other options would include placing the items in context with each other, for example mounting an anvil in a stump as it would have been used, placing an axe head so that its blade is on the anvil and suspend a hammer above the blade as if it were ready for the next strike.[7] By placing the items in this sort of spatially connected grouping the patron can more easily interpret the usage. Similarly by taking an artefact and placing replicas with it in the case it is possible to show a visitor the stages of production or what the object would have looked like when it was in use, while still retaining the authority that comes with displaying an artefact.[8] Placing the objects into context by turning the display from a simple box into a diorama using an appropriate backdrop can further aid the patron in forming an attachment to the information provided.

Finally and perhaps most importantly of all, if a curator is to help the patron to connect to the information being presented they must understand their audience.Our modern culture is turned towards entertainment.This means that it is not enough for a visitor to learn at the exhibit they are pre-disposed to expect to be entertained.Large budget films replete with special effects and documentaries heavy with scientific background are commonplace. Renaissance faires and medieval theme attractions like “Medieval Times” set a performance standard. The designer must be ready to balance these expectations, provide a broad range of information, and send the patron home happy lest the exhibit receive word of mouth advertising of being boring. At the same time she must protect the academic credentials of the institution by not staging an inaccurate spectacle.

A lecture or lecture series associated with an exhibit can act as a method of getting return visits by patrons during the life of an exhibit increasing revenue and visitor count while providing additional education. Bringing in outside scholars to speak increases the perceived authenticity of the exhibit in addition to the benefits described above. A lecture from the curator or exhibit designer can add a behind the scenes look which is always a welcome addition.

The inclusion of live people in a presentation extends the audience’s ability to connect with the exhibit in another direction. If done well this will add sound – both language and musical; more hands-on activity; and significantly enhances the patron’s ability to delve deeper into their own specific interest increasing their attachment to the topic further.It provides information to see replicas in use that can instantly increase the connection felt by the patron. Interpreters also add a direct and readily available source for follow-up information on the items seen in the exhibit. The use of re-enactors, animators, or interpreters can expand the entertainment value of the program along with the increased educational content. Increased risks come along with the costs of such an extension. Depending on the type of person used, inaccurate information or replicas and reproductions may be employed to the detriment of the exhibit.

Concerns Specific to Viking Exhibits

In addition to the standard concerns facing exhibit developers, presenting material on the Viking Era has its own unique problems. The first of these is the association between the White Pride movements and the Norse culture. It is unfortunate that these groups have seized on this period of history to represent themselves but this association cannot be ignored. When preparing an interpretative exhibit for the Haffenreffer Museum in 2006, we were contacted by the hate crimes division of the local police department to warn us that increased activity indicated that we could expect a visit from group members. Two explicit actions were taken: additional security was brought on-site for the exhibition to stop any incidents early, and the re-enactors were warned to adjust the content of their presentations. Care must be taken to consider this impact on both budget and training.

The Viking era Norse culture is also impacted by a number of norms that are not currently socially acceptable, or which have undergone such radical changes that it is difficult for the patron to understand the Viking era context of particular words. Slavery serves a good example of these concerns. The word alone stirs up considerable concern in our culture, yet it was undeniably a part of the Norse world. Living history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg have attempted to address this concept in the past and had significant problems, even when due care is taken to address the concerns in advance.[9]

The next problem is that of preconceptions. It is a rare patron today who has no connection to the term “Viking”.Ward discusses several of the notions that are likely to come with the audience. First among these is the term ‘Viking’ itself. Although the term denotes a small fraction of the population from this cultural group and milieu it is such a standard term that the designers of many exhibits are compelled to use it.[10] The iconic horned Viking helmet and the cultural preconceptions of the Viking as an intrepid explorer, or a dirty barbarian[11] are also firmly rooted and must be understood as a starting point for exhibit visitors. Ward’s team created a pop-culture display[12] to meet these preconceptions head on.According to her report this display clearly had an impact on the patrons but did have risks associated with its use – particularly the risk of re-enforcing the preconception rather than challenging it.

Finally the paucity of artefacts available from the Norse culture can lead a visitor to astray in a number of ways. The commonly presented items and the easy familiarity they bring may lead the patron to assume early that she has seen everything before and that this exhibit will add nothing to her knowledge. In an attempt to provide visitors with a range of artefacts, curators often draw from a very broad geographical and temporal spread of sites. No matter how rigid the attempt to tie specific artefacts to particular areas and times, the patron may be lead to assume that the entire Viking Era Norse culture is a monolithic block that did not change for two hundred years.

This concern is extended by the impact of modernist and post-modernist ideas in both the presentation and the patron’s reaction to it. An exhibit designer must strive for a modernist presentation as authentic and accurate as possible, firmly supported by empirical evidence.The patron’s post-modern expectations can cause them to accept or attach to the less authentic items because they feel more correct.This dichotomy can be seen again in the issue of the horned Viking helmets discussed by Ward.Plastic horned hats were sold in the gift shop and were popular but generated significant negative comment to the designers[13]. Similarly, in the exhibit discussed in depth below included a selection of carved steatite game piece replicas, each piece was displayed with the carved side hidden as the curator felt that the post-modernism of a shield carved into defending pieces would detract from the exhibit.[14] This same post-modern response on the part of a patron will cause a rapid and unfavourable reaction to real or perceived errors in the presentation.

Opportunities in Presentations of Norse Culture

Presenting the Viking era culture also comes with opportunities that may not exist with presentations of other cultures. The two problems discussed earlier illustrate that audiences often have already formed one or more links to this culture. This means that in general exhibits and special events on this topic will be well attended bringing a welcome boost to the profile and budget of most institutions.[15]

The pre-formed connection with this culture also makes the audience generally more receptive and allows more educational material to be absorbed.[16]

As information about Viking Era history has been presented to the public for over 100 years, an opportunity exists to examine how this information has been presented and educate the patron on cultural biases in the presentations.Presenting an artefact along with dated interpretations, and if possible differing replicas, can show the patron the difference between the interpretations of Victorian antiquarians, Nazi propagandists, and early scientific theories juxtaposed against the current theory. A further possibility exists to educate with regards to the scientific or experimental techniques used to re-interpret the artefact. Although the Smithsonian’s Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga has a section on “Recapturing the Past”[17] it falls short of seizing this opportunity.Presented well, such a case could cause the patron to question his own biases and preconceptions as he tours the exhibit.

Examining an example exhibit

The Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives’ (PCMA) current presentation of Vikings: Master Mariners, Traders, Colonists & Artisans provides an example of how a previously constructed exhibit can be adapted with a broader presentation capable of a greater audience connection and impact.This exhibit is an expanded version of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature’s Vikings: Master Mariners exhibit. The original exhibit consists of 12 approximately four by six foot panels in wooden frames, the majority with small Riker mounts attached containing reproductions.By itself the original exhibit provides text panels which allow the patron to explore the topic in two levels of depth.Large font titles on each panel sets the stage, medium sized font for one or two paragraphs covers the main point of the card while smaller font information allows more in depth follow-up of specific ideas or artefacts. The extremely sparse nature of the objects, however, reduces the ability of the viewer to connect to the exhibit.

The exhibit was expanded at the PCMA to include 7 large floor mount cases with replicas, 4 exposed displays of replicas, and six stations that allowed patrons to connect to the items around them in different ways. Beside a case containing blacksmithing replicas, a bellows was positioned for the public to use which would make a tissue paper “fire” move. This would appeal to a bodily-kinesthetic learner as would the tablet weaving station nearby. Beside a text card on the extent of Viking raiding and trading, a bearing dial with spotlights was arranged so patrons can exercise their spatial intelligence and learn to navigate. A game was set up beside a case on pastimes to appeal to logical-mathematically minded patrons. A fifth station contained paper handouts with colouring, and word game exercises to both reach younger patrons, and provide activity for them so that accompanying adults could take time to review the available text materials in the exhibit. A final station contained a recipe for bread that patrons could try at home extending the reach of the exhibit beyond the museum itself.

This display was then augmented with various lectures and a family day with additional activities and historical interpreters available.

I attended the exhibit on a day when the co-curator was providing a lecture on the Oseberg burial - one of the digs underlying the exhibit. I was afforded the opportunity to spend an hour in the exhibit itself before other patrons arrived, then an hour listening to the reactions of the various attendees as they observed the exhibits, followed by a chance to hear the lecture and the post-lecture question and answer period.

The lecture itself was attended by over 50 people, many of whom I had seen in the exhibit earlier. This represents a significantly larger attendance than the norm for such lectures.[18] The average age was in the 50s with the youngest attendee in his mid teens. The range of post lecture questions was interesting as it demonstrated quite solidly the attempts that people were making to attach themselves to the topic under discussion. There was a question about a specific oarsman’s name – an attempt to tie the exhibit to a family story told by the patron’s ancestors. Questions followed attempting to place the burial itself into a physical or cultural context.“Were the objects buried life-sized?” “How did she die?” “Were the animals killed or buried alive?” “What type of horses?” all of these questions represent patrons looking for additional connections in their own world to link with the information.There were also exhibit follow-up questions asking after specific terms or objects. These are significant in that they represent information that made enough of an impact that the patron was ready to risk exposing ignorance to gather more information.

In observing patrons viewing the exhibit I focused on three particular pairs of people. Although there were many single people moving through the exhibit they didn’t speak out loud making it impossible to understand what connections they were making without using more intrusive means such as an interview. The first pair of people was an older couple who slowly moved around the hall with the man explaining things to the woman – adding additional context and linking it to elements in their life. I was struck by the number of sentences that included phrases like “that would be like us…”.

The second pair of people was two middle-aged men. Their method of contact with the information seemed to be to point out errors (as they saw them) in the exhibit to each other.They provided good examples of preconceived ideas with regards to the Norse as one or the other indicated that the Norse gods were “ripped off” the Greek gods, or that the Norse art styles were clearly the result of kidnapping Celtic artisans. Even this pair, however, made new attachments in their reading of the information provided as both pointed out items of interest such as the draft of a longship to the other.

The final pair was two older ladies. Their conversation involved attempting to connect to the information on an emotional level and included phrases such as “what would it have felt like to…”, or “I like the way they…”.


Mounting an exhibit on the Viking Era Norse has both unique challenges and opportunities.A bold curator who is willing to explore a broad range of approaches to educating the public will be rewarded with an interested and engaged audience.


Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, “Financial Statements of Canadian Museum of Civilization Year ended March 2007”, 2007 available at http://www.civilization.ca/societe/annrpt06/arpt0607fe.pdf

Fife W.“Penetrating Types: Conflating Modernist and Postmodernist Tourism on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.” Journal of American Folklore 117(464) (2004): 147-167

Fife W. “Semantic Slippage as a New Aspect of Authenticity: Viking Tourism on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.” Journal of Folklore Research Vol 41 No. 1 (2004): 61-84

Gardner, H. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1993

Halewood C. and Hannam K.“Viking Heritage Tourism – Authenticity and Commodification.” Annals of Tourism Research 28.3 (2001): 565-580

Markewitz, D, “The ‘Viking Encampment’ at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada: Presenting the Past” in Vinland Revisited: the Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, ed. Shannon Lewis-Simpson 193-202. St. Johns: Historic Sites Association, 2003.

Rawlins, Kipi, “Educational Metamorphosis of the American Museum” Studies in Art Education Vol 20 No. 1 (1978): 4-17

Roth, Stacey. Past into Present. University of North Carolina Press, 1998

Ward, Elisabeth I., “Viking Pop Culture on Display: The Case of the Horned Helmets” Material History Review Vol 54 (2001): 6-20

[1] This paper will use three specific terms defined by Darrell Markewitz interpretative program and exhibit designer, in personal communications in an attempt to clarify types of material that may be displayed. An artefact is the actual object from the archaeological excavation. A reproduction is a modern creation designed to look like the artefact. A replica is a modern creation designed to look like the artefact would have looked when it was in use. Both replicas and reproductions may have various levels of accuracy in their creation.Materials may be substituted at a number of levels.  For example any reproduction or replica of a pewter item will be made from a lead-free alloy while the actual artefact will have a lead content. Such a substitution is invisible at any level below a metallurgical analysis. A re-enactor, however, might use a ceramic replica that has been glazed inside for health reasons which would be highly visible.

[2] Three terms defined by Darrell Markewitz are used to discuss manned presentations that can be used.An animator is an actor who performs a set piece usually completely scripted. A re-enactor is a member of a historical organization who studies history as a hobby and presents according to the techniques specified by the group usually in a first or second person technique. An interpreter is an individual trained to present history to the public in an interactive fashion in one or more of a number of methods according to roles as designed for an exhibit.

[3] http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/vikings/transcript.html

[4] Darrell Markewitz, personal communication, 2007

[5] Rawlins, 1978, p. 4

[6]Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, 2007 note 1

[7]David Cox, co-curator Peterborough Centennial Museum’s Vikings: Master Mariners, Traders, Colonists & Artisans personal communication, 2007

[8]Darrell Markewitz, personal communication, 2007

[9]Roth, 1998 p. 168-172

[10]Ward, 2001 endnote 20 and Markewitz 2003 p. 201

[11]Ward 2001, p. 8

[12]Ward 2001, p.13

[13]Ward 2001, footnote 17

[14]David Cox, personal communication, 2007

[15]David Cox, personal communication, 2007

[16]Ward 2001, footnote 28

[17]Ward 2001, p. 12

[18]David Cox, personal communication, 2007