On The Town: Vikings: Beyond The Legend

I’ve been playing around with this idea for a while and have finally decided to put it into action. This post marks the first of a new series titled On The Town. These posts won’t be up on a regular basis like Art Talk or Badass Women, but I am hoping they will show up regularly, especially throughout the summer. On The Town, will feature reviews of events that we attend around Denver, and possibly beyond.

Growing up, I can’t believe how little advantage I took of living in such a fun, diverse, thriving community. And things are only getting better. It seems like every year there is a new event or festival that is well organized and just plain fun and interesting. On top of that, there are small nuggets of activities that are fascinating and often educational. For example, this fall we’ll be hitting up the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center to interact with various wolves and foxes. How cool is that? I’ll also be attending Denver Comic Con for the first time, and hopefully we’ll drink our fill at the American Beer Festival. There is so much to do and so much to see and I would just love to share it with you all.

Now that I’ve played that up sufficiently, I have a bad review to start off the series. Unfortunately.

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Over Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I had planned to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see their current temporary exhibit, Vikings: Beyond The Legend. Now, I am a huge fan of this museum. I even volunteered there one summer during college as an exhibit guide in Expedition Health, a permanent and interactive health and fitness exhibit. I had so much fun volunteering and getting to walk around to my favorite places almost everyday I was there. Here’s a secret: I know where all the elves are hidden in the Wildlife and Prehistoric Journey rooms. There’s also a wonderful room filled with gemstone carvings of Russian folk life that I insist on taking all of my friends to see (it’s hidden toward the back of the Wildlife rooms.) And Space Odyssey is always a must.

I remember visiting so many traveling exhibits in this museum throughout school and it was absolutely fascinating. My favorites by far were Body Worlds, Titanic, A Day in Pompeii, and one on ancient Egypt. They were always so immersive and interactive and educational. I remember people being upset with me because I wanted to read every single placard and I actually learned a lot from them that I didn’t already know. DMNS has a wonderful history of constructing an enjoyable, educational experience for viewers of all ages.

But now, they seem to be faltering quite a bit.

The last exhibit I remember attending there was Mythic Creatures, an exhibit that highlighted the history and legends of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and more. Now, I won’t fault them too much for the kitschy construction because how much can you really do in an entire exhibit built on legend? However, Vikings followed the same childish set up and simplified explanations that culminated in a great disappointment. IMG_1164

First of all, the ratio of explanatory placards to artifacts is extreme. There were very few actual artifacts to view, the majority of things in display cases being copies. This was such a disappointment to me because the main reason I attend museums and exhibits like this is to get as close as I can to a real piece of history. I know that it is necessary to show what things would have looked like, especially in the recreations of runic inscriptions that are included in the exhibit. But with most of it being copies, it made me wonder why I had come if I was only going to see something that was made a few years ago. However, many of the real artifacts are very intriguing, most of it being jewelry. There are several bracelets, necklaces, armbands, and pendants depicting Norse gods and goddesses. The majority of the jewelry shown is large brooches that were intricately decorated and gilded by hand. These are probably the most fascinating to me, next to the iron swords and the recovered remnants of an offering to the gods that was buried under a house for protection.

I do offer a pass on one copy, which is that of two boats that were meticulously reconstructed using the processes and materials of that historical time period. Can you imagine going through all of that today?

However, these few parts of the exhibit are possibly the only redeeming qualities to the entire experience. The educational placards are vastly inadequate in describing the hows IMG_1163and whys of various practices, such as burial ships and sacrificial offerings. There are mentions of the Norse gods such as Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freya. They repeatedly mention Valkyries but never really say what they are. There is a very brief description of Valhalla toward the back of the exhibit after you’ve read about it at least 10 times on other placards. And there is a half-hearted attempt to describe the shift from polytheism to Christianity. The guiding theme throughout the exhibit seems to be dispelling stereotypes. Multiple times throughout the exhibit we are told that the name Viking came from the raids the people would go on throughout Scandinavia and Europe, called vikings. We are told over and over again that they never wore helmets with horns. And we are told multiple times that they were simple farming people that dealt in trade. Now, while this adheres to the title of the exhibition, the marketing of the show peddles a picture of the culture as a whole. Yet the exhibit makes no attempt to truly tell a comprehensive story of who these people were. I found myself Googling and reading up on Wikipedia because I got so little information from the exhibit itself.

They also advertise that you can feel how heavy their swords were, and then give you a horrible fabricated recreation made from modern materials and not the iron ones we see in the display cases. You can barely hold it. This is blatant false advertising.

DMNS was always a museum where people of all ages could learn. Now it is solely concerned with children, which leads to half-hearted exhibits with only enough information and mounds interactivity to keep a child moderately interested. I’m not saying they should take away portions for kids entirely, but that should not be the only audience they cater to. I implore the museum curators to rethink their strategy and return to the higher tier of respectful education that it once occupied.

What did you think about Vikings: Beyond the Legend? What is the value in including copies of artifacts along with true archeological finds? How can curators improve the experience of an exhibit through placards and interactivity without compromising its integrity for an older audience? Let’s talk.

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