Saturday, 4 November 2017

UNRAVELING THE MYTHS OF VIKING CULTURE: #VIKINGSTO

WEEKEND EDITION

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Learning about stereotypes is a crucial element of critical thinking, especially in a multicultural place such as Canada. As a child, I remember feeling astonished to discover that Vikings don't actually wear horned helmets (!!!).

Promotional imagery for #VIKINGSTO. Photo courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum. 

VIKINGS: The Exhibition, which opened today at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), similarly seeks to dispel oversimplified notions of Viking society and culture that we see in popular representations like operas, plays, movies, and television. The travelling exhibition is presented by Raymond James Ltd. in partnership with the Swedish History Museum, and the ROM is the final North American stop on the tour.

Viking Helmet. Photo courtesy of the Swedish History Museum.
I was privileged to attend the Media Preview for VIKINGS this past Wednesday, where I heard Director & CEO Josh Basseches introduce the exhibition. Also present was Dr. Craig Cipolla, Associate Curator of North American Archaeology. Dr. Cipolla called attention to some of the myths that the exhibition sheds light on, as well as archaeological discoveries that challenge commonly held perceptions about Viking culture. He also curated the section on Vikings in Canada, which is the final area of the ROM exhibition.


Josh Basseches (top), ROM Director & CEO, and Dr. Craig Cipolla (bottom), Associate Curator of North American Archaeology, at the Media Preview for VIKINGS: The Exhibition. Photos courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
This exhibition hosts almost 500 original objects from the Swedish History Museum's collection, from between the 8th and 11th centuries. One of the examples I found most fascinating is the discovery and recent analysis of human bones from a Viking grave in Birka, Sweden, that may have belonged to a female warrior. Though some anthropologists dispute this theory, artifacts such as these prompt discussion and encourage us to ask new questions that challenge our pre-existing beliefs.

Dorset carving from Baffin Island. L2017.80.8 (QiLd-1:35) Collection of the
Canadian Museum of History.
While in the exhibition space, Cipolla stated that the ROM presents multiple perspectives and archaeological evidence to help visitors engage in discussion and draw some of their own conclusions. From my own experience in the space, I noticed that the exhibition text acknowledges some questions that still remain unanswered, prompting further interest in the complex issue of who Vikings really were.

Scandinavians only called themselves "Vikings" if they were out on a "Viking" (a raid or trade trip). Vikings were therefore not just one unified group of people; nor are they dirty plunderers. Some believed in the old Norse traditions, while others were Christian. Vikings were also farmers who had their own familial roles in society, and, according to archaeological evidence in the exhibition, maintained their personal hygiene. In viewing VIKINGS: The Exhibition, I was able to appreciate Vikings not as a homogeneous group but as part of a diverse and complex culture that transcends today's widespread perceptions.

VIKINGS: The Exhibition is on display from now until April 2, 2018. Find information about the exhibition and programming here.

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