Marshaling the Vikings: the politics of the Viking Museum in Denmark

Back in May 2016, I wrote a blog on how the populist Danish People’s Party (Den Danske Folkpartiet, or DF; an influential xenophobic and anti-immigration political party in Denmark) were calling for the complete refurbishment of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. Built in the late 1960s to house the five famous Viking ships salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the present museum now looks a little dated. According to a newspaper report in Politiken, Alex Ahrendtsen, a Danish People’s Party (DF) cultural spokesperson, imagines an ‘iconic museum in Viking style’. “We are in an international Viking competition; Norway, especially, is far ahead. There, they have really invested. And then it’s annoying if we’re back in Denmark with a crumbling concrete museum that scares tourists away” he says.

Viking Ship2

The DF dream, however, appeared to be hampered by the fact that architect Erik Christian Sørensen’s Museum Hall of 1969 was protected under national heritage laws in 1997. The concrete museum cannot be replaced by a more ‘Danish’ building, because it is a building declared to as a ‘Danish’ architectural icon already! This is a debate about who the Danes are – or at least who the DF imagines the Danes to be. DF wishes the Danish nation to be architecturally represented by an iconic building in ‘Viking’ style (as re-imagined in the early 21st century), in a move that both makes a strong claiming of natural, direct and unproblematic Viking connection as well as an explicit rejection of the modern design aesthetics that Denmark is also often associated with and reflected in the 1969 building.

The most recent financial settlement in the Danish Government (December 2017), however, sees a new twist, with the Danish People’s Party managing to secure 23 Million Danish Kroner (DKK) for a series of their pet cultural heritage projects, including their vision of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. According to a recent newspaper article in Politiken (11th December 2017), DF have secured 10 million DKK for the Roskilde project, for a two year examination of the possibilities of rebuilding the Museum in Viking style: “I’m pretty happy with that. It has taken some time, but now it begins to draw light. For now, the state has committed itself to preserving and safeguarding the Viking ships”, says Alex Ahrendtsen. The plan involves moving the ships and carrying out a full investigation as to whether the Museum building should be renewed in its present (modernist) state, or demolished and rebuilt in ‘Viking style’. The National Museum Board would prefer to preserve the central parts of the present museum hall, but the Danish People’s Party Alex Ahrendtsen, on the other hand prefers complete demolition and rebuilding: “we need a nice museum with the best of Danish architecture, which simultaneously exudes the Viking Age. It will in itself set a standard and attract many people”.

One might wonder what a building that ‘exudes the Viking age’ might look like. I don’t think that the ‘real’ Vikings a thousand or more years ago built any large museums – or at least there are none that survive in the archaeological record – so a museum ‘in Viking style’ is a blank canvas on which to sketch one’s dreams of self-identity. The Danish People’s Party’s ideal museum, therefore, would be a building that exudes the aesthetics and style of an imagined Viking origines gentium of the Danish people.

Viking Ship1

For this purpose of ‘imagineering’, the Vikings have been a remarkably durable vehicle over the years. The Vikings have been robust enough in terms of recognisability and consistency of image (of long ships, horned helmets and long beards) to sustain a powerful sense of imagined community, yet also flexible enough to fit changing tastes and requirements over ideas of civilisation and their positive cultural legacy. They also (helpfully) herald from a temporally distant-enough epoch to allow one to gloss over aspects of slave trading and pillaging, or at least to allow one to place them in context of a (once) violent world. The Vikings as brave and highly skilled seafarers and traders, who left a distinct cultural imprint across the entire continent of Europe, is a much nicer image to memorialise and celebrate. In this guise, they can be channelled as ancestors to be cherished – something that I guess the Danish People’s Party would probably like.

This seems to be at the heart of a speech celebrating the Vikings by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former Icelandic President, back in 2005. Likening the present day Icelandic population to the Vikings, Grímsson talked about how Icelanders “are risk takers. They are daring … We don‘t like bureaucracy, we travel the world without extra baggage; without ulterior motive; without military or political strength …. young entrepreneurial Vikings have arrived in London full of confidence and ready to take on the world”.

Viking Ship4

Imagined in this guise, Vikings are great – certainly ancestors to be proud of, adventurers ‘without baggage’ and ‘without political or military strength’. And since they traded and settled, intermarried and blended with populations all over Europe, then perhaps this is an image that we can all have a stake in? This is something that is probably a long way from the imaginations of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson or the Danish People’s Party, but if the Vikings are flexible enough to accommodate the imagined community of 21st century entrepreneurs and business leaders, then perhaps they are also robust enough to act as a vehicle through which to understand – and celebrate – a broader community of people who travel to unknown lands?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (2005): “The heritage of discovery and exploration, fostered by the medieval Viking sagas that have been told and retold to every Icelandic child. This is a tradition that gives honour to those who venture into unknown lands, who dare to journey to foreign fields, interpreting modern …. ventures as an extension of the Viking spirit, applauding the successful entrepreneurs as heirs of this proud tradition…. [this is] demonstrated by the Icelandic term used to describe a pioneer or an entrepreneur, – “athafnaskáld” – which means literally “a poet of enterprise”.

I don‘t suppose the Danish People‘s Party intend their imagined Viking space to spread this far, but if we look at contemporary Denmark, perhaps it is the refugees and migrants who have found a home in Denmark that are the true ‘Vikings‘. These are the contemporary Vikings; poets of enterprise, who travel without baggage and without political or military strength. And if a new Viking Ship Museum does get built in Roskilde, perhaps its ‘Viking style‘ can reflect the immigrant communities as the true inheritors of the Viking spirit?

Poets of Enterprise

Poets of Enterprise