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

 

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“We love Viking greatness….”

Having just spent a very pleasant cycle holiday touring around Denmark, I can certainly vouch for just how important the Vikings are for Danish national identity. This is fully recognized by Danes themselves, and was explored a little in an article within the national broadsheet newspaper Politiken recently (page 3 of the Kulture section, Wednesday 27th July 2016), under the headline “Vi elsker vikingernes storhed”, which roughly translates as “We Love Viking Greatness”, (see: http://politiken.dk/kultur/medier/ECE3312983/vi-elsker-vikingernes-storhed/)

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Photo from Politiken (27/7/16); Nationalmuseet

In particular, the Politiken article explores the phenomenal popularity of Viking era re-enactments, in which thousands of people dress up and ‘live as Vikings’, for a day, a weekend, or even longer. I saw a good example of the longer-duration Viking re-enactment scene last year at the Fyrkat Viking Centre, near Hobro, North Jutland (http://nordmus.dk/vikingecenter-fyrkat), where visitors could watch ‘normal’ Viking families cook meals, make textiles or work in smithies. Often, such events last for just a weekend, such as at the Moesgaard Viking Moot near Aarhus, held over the last weekend in July each year (http://www.visitaarhus.com/ln-int/moesgaard-viking-moot-gdk644190).

Operating each year since 1977, the Moot this year involves over 600 families (and 65 horses) gathered for re-enactment activities, and visited by thousands of day tourists at the site.

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Working oven at the Fyrkat Viking re-enactment site

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A ‘Viking Welcome’ (information board at Fyrkat)

Mads Daugbjerg et al. have recently edited a Special Issue on the meaning and potential of re-enactment in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (2014, volume 20, issue 7-8). According to Daugbjerg et al (2014), re-enactment is a particularly effective means of heritage – ontologically intensive, performative and experiential – it can create a shared sense of knowledge that produces a collaborative heritage of possibility (Daugbjerg 2014: 728). But why are the Vikings a particular favourite for re-enactors?

Reported in the Politiken article, Anne-Christine Larsen (of the National Museum, and active Viking re-enactor) notes (roughly translated) that the Viking Age is a period that “we are often proud of because we were kings of a large part of the world, more or less for the first and only time in our history. And, moreover, it is also a period when a lot of significant things happen in Denmark – we get state building; we become Christian; towns emerge; rowing boats become sailing ships so that the world suddenly opens up”. She adds that the “surviving stories of the Vikings are full of heroes and heroines, and people lived more simply. So, when people are Vikings and cook their food over an open fire for a weekend, the go down a gear”. The archaeologist Jeanette Varberg adds that the “Viking period is a story about a time when our little country set the agenda in world history. It is not so often we experienced that in Denmark, so that’s why we like it”.

What strikes me about these quotes is how present-centred they are, in terms of the affirmation of self-identity today, both for the state of Denmark and for the community within Denmark. Being a Viking is a relaxing way to spend some ‘down time’, while also reinforcing a sense of communal identity. This works through the easy way in which the experiences of an era from more than a thousand years ago are made into ‘our experiences’: we are the Vikings, and the Vikings are us. The entire political and cultural entity of the Viking orbit of power is equated to ‘our little country’, and a narrative of Christianisation, urbanization and the development of world trade and travel is given a dimension of seemingly inevitable national destiny.

This was something that I saw during a visit to the National Museum site at Jelling, last November (‘Royal Jelling: Home of the Viking Kings’: http://en.natmus.dk/museums/kongernes-jelling-home-of-the-viking-kings/). A lot of money has been spent in a very interactive museum, which provides a means of exploring the past that is excellent fun. As with the Viking re-enactments, however, explorations of the past sometimes blurs with proclamations about the present; implying that Denmark’s status as a “Christian Country” is (literally) set in stone, and that people who are not “Christian” equally cannot be “Danes” (or Vikings).

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‘Royal Jelling’ Museum at Jelling, Denmark

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Royal Jelling Museum: ‘Today: the countries of Europe are all officially Christian’

These issues veer towards the controversy that arose when the Hollywood film Thor came out in 2011 and the black actor Idris Elba was cast as the Norse god Heimdall. There was a lot of criticism from some conservative circles (see: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/dec/17/white-supremacists-boycott-thor) who claimed that a Norse god cannot be played by a black actor. Rather than risk siding with white supremacists, therefore, it strikes me that the relationship between ‘Danishness’ and the Vikings requires some nuance, and a sense of openness about who can call themselves ‘Vikings’.

It seems to me that at the root of these debates is the fact that the Vikings have a powerful charm, perhaps only comparable to ‘Pirates’ (of the Captain Jack Sparrow variety). The Viking world is a composite of genuine macho-independence and self-confidence, alongside a seemingly quotidian sense of societal self. These elements are underlined through scholarship, with a good range of surviving archaeological evidence that attests to the sophistication of Viking art, ingenuity and navigation that is understandably celebrated. Maybe we all want to be ‘Vikings’ (and ‘Pirates’)? After all, when a relatively violent and perilous world is viewed through 1000 years of temporal distance, even massacres and slave trading can become ‘cool things’ to take ownership of and claim responsibility for? As Jeanette Varberg adds (in the Politiken article), despite an array of archaeological artifacts, the “written sources are not great and so this creates a space that we can fill with our imagination”.

Rather than being an ‘embarrassing aged relative’, the Vikings have become a ‘flexible friend’ – a vehicle for all sorts of contemporary hopes and desires. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sentiment, as long as we can all play at being Vikings.

Doing things with Viking heritage

A lot of apologies have been called for in recent years – and some have been made, even when not sought.

Often, these issues of apology and reconciliation are related to colonial endeavors, and particularly the exploitational tendencies of white settler communities. In the UK, the ‘public apology’ issue really came to prominence during 2007, the Bicentenary of the ending of the slave trade. Various senior politicians expressed ‘regret’, but no official apology as such, was deemed necessary by those in power. The issue is still raised by representatives of those that have undergone previous injustice – the recent call by the President of Jamaica for reparations from the UK for the crime of slavery seems to be ably supported by concrete evidence in the form of archived accounts of plantation profits, as well as records of compensation paid by the UK Government in the 1830s to slave owners whose ‘capital’ of human bodies had been deemed to be freed through an Act of Parliament. The existence of such an Act represents the proof of the injustice, but not apology – and no reparations are deemed to be necessary.

In such a climate, therefore, it is perhaps strange to see such a full and reflective ‘apology’ being freely offered from one of the wealthiest nations on earth, as happened when, in 1993, the Church of Norway sent a ‘letter of reconciliation’ to the people of Lindsifarne, Holy Island, Northumbria, reflecting on the devastation of the Abbey and community on Holy Island in the year 793AD.

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Lindisfarne (Author photo, August 2014)

This letter of reconciliation acts both as a sort of apology for the Viking raid in AD793, and also a reflective meditation on proceeding events. This ‘reconciliation’ took place exactly 1200 years after the  sacking of the monastery of Lindisfarne. What took them so long? Why now? And, what does it mean?

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Lindisfarne (Author photo, August 2014)

While the UK Government are clearly a little reticent to hold their hand up and take responsibility for the much more recent trade in human cargo that arguably laid the foundation for the modern world system and distribution of wealth and power, the Norwegian Church appear happy to take responsibility for the plundering of an early Christian monastery more the 1200 years ago.

Our understanding of the Viking Age has grown considerably in recent years. No longer are they seen as a bunch of hooligans with horns on their helmets. Indeed, their cultural currency as weighed in terms of identity forming capital for use in building nations is highly valued. In Scandinavia, the exploits of Viking ancestors provide a key foundational narrative of nationhood – an identity-forming vehicle carried forward by Scandinavian settlers in other parts of the world, from Minnesota to the Shetland Islands.

It is a powerful story, of bravery and blood honour; a cultural and economic high point enacted through heroic migration that was borne of a mixture of enterprising human spirit and economic necessity. It is a story that is very much celebrated, particularly in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. Rather than a crime to hide from view, or feel remorse for, therefore, the story of the sacking of Lindisfarne provides a direct tacit link to a valuable and powerful origin legend. Maybe the Danes should be kicking themselves that the Norwegians got their apology in first!

Rather than worrying too much about reconciliatory apologies, however, the Danes are busy cementing their Viking self-image through the building of a new museum and visitor centre at the remains of a ring fort in Slagelse, near Copenhagen.

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Proposed Viking Heritage Centre, near Copenhagen

According to the architectural magazine DeZeen: ‘Its green roof will angle up from the ground, and help it to mirror the fortress and blend with its rural setting. The shape also pays homage to the circular shields typically used by Vikings in battle’. “We have designed and placed the building as a lost shield casually left on the edge of the forest,” said [architect] Søren Mølbak. “We have recreated the Viking atmosphere with a gripping audio-visual universe of exhibition spaces, the crackling of the fireplace in the cafe, the tarred timber exterior cladding and the Viking sails decorating the facades,” explained Søren.

Not stopping there: according to the Danish newspaper, Politiken, the Danish People’s Party (an influential xenophobic and anti-immigration political party) has recently called for a complete refurbishment of the internationally famous Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Built in the late 1960s to house the five famous Viking ships that were salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the present museum is now thought to look a little dated.

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Roskilde Viking Ship Museum (Author photo, Dec 2015)

In a newspaper report in January 2016 (http://politiken.dk/kultur/ECE3035037/df-vil-rive-vikingeskibsmuseet-ned-og-opfoere-nyt-i-vikingestil/) a Danish People’s Party spokesperson on culture called for a new museum to be built in ‘Viking style’.

While the same political party seem to have been very keen to confiscate the valuables of refugees entering Denmark in the name of shoring up stretched state finances, it seems that money should be found to build a brand new and suitably ‘Viking’ long-house/museum. The proposal has received some interesting (and very sharp) responses from both the museum community in Denmark, and several prominent architects – including suggestions that the Danish Peoples Party proposal corresponds to a sort of blinkered cultural vandalism that ought to be compared with the actions of IS and the Taliban! (see http://politiken.dk/kultur/arkitektur/ECE3037005/storm-mod-df-forslag-om-nedrivning-af-fredet-museumshal/)

They had better start building soon, however, since in May 2016, the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum announced the winner of the architectural competition to build their new museum in Oslo.

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Proposed extension of Viking museum, Oslo

According to DeZeen, the new building once again draws inspiration from ‘Viking Architecture’; “With its bold circular shape, the extension will create a new iconic signature for the museum, while making room for an intuitive flow of exhibitions and preserving the Viking Ship building as a prominent, totally integral part of the new museum and the surrounding countryside,” said the architects. Ironically, perhaps, the architects for this project are the Danish firm, AART!

So far, so good, in terms of there being such a widely held interest and investment in Viking heritage. It provides a source of succor within identity-forming narratives in both Norway and Denmark (and elsewhere), but what else can it do?

Rather than horned-helmeted hairy heathens, the Vikings these days, are more often talked of in terms of their skills, ingenuity and cultural achievements. They were international migrants, who travelled to the edges of the known world in search of economic improvement. In doing so, they had to adapt to all sorts of new environments, as a Viking diaspora spread throughout (and beyond) Europe. Perhaps there are some lessons here for how we understand migration stories today? The detailed circumstances of these migration stories are certainly very different, but perhaps the Danish People’s Party and other anti-immigrant groups in western Europe should reflect upon what they like to celebrate about their own heritage – and extend a hand of understanding towards the migrants of today.

[All the captions are correct, but I think I have got some of them mixed up on the photos below] 

We were out at sea for a long time

Climb on board a Viking ship

Genuine Sailing Experience

“We were out at sea for a long time – 15 hours – and the motor started to die. We thought we were going to die any minute”

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“Genuine sailing experience in a traditional, Nordic boat with oars, sail – and with the scent of wood tar in the nose”

Climb on board a viking ship

Refugees keep coming to Greece in overcrowded boats