The entrance of the exhibit challenges you to put aside what you think you know about Vikings.
At the end of February, I got a chance to visit the temporary Vikings exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History. It was a wonderful experience, and well worth traveling to if you’re in the region. There are many permanent exhibits to check out when you’re done learning about Vikings, including a museum just for children and the iMax theater.
The Viking exhibit’s goal was to accurately portray this group of people and attempt to correct centuries old misconceptions. Entering the dim room, you’re greeted by beautiful maps and photos of the land where the Vikings lived – the origin of the artifacts housed within. Speakers softly played a very natural soundtrack – birdsong and trickling water. While the purpose may have been to transport visitors to another time, the dim room also made it feel as if I were walking into a sacred space.
Glass cases housed numerous archaeological finds, and a few reconstructions. As a parent, I greatly appreciated that they were low enough for my daughter to look into as well. I didn’t expect her to be as fascinated as she was, and her interest truly delighted me! Adding to the sense of reverence, one case held bones. My daughter stared in awe at the skull. My husband and I told her that that person may even be one of our ancestors. We looked at a variety of weapons, yes, but of greater interest to me were the women’s artifacts – beads, pins, parts of drop spindles, and key talismans. I hadn’t ever heard of the later before. When I first saw one at the museum, I noticed that it looked like a skeleton key, but I couldn’t imagine it functioning! Indeed, the descriptions described them as possible magical objects, offering protection and power. They’re believed to have been carried by women of high status – those who ran the homes. In other words, they may have been a symbol of power among women. Since seeing them, I’ve been seeing keys, and dealing with interesting key-related scenarios, all over. I’m still trying to sort through what this might mean to me…
There were various interactive elements in the exhibit. A feasting table with a “true or false” game built in created an interesting communal area where young and old could learn more together and reflect on changing perceptions. My daughter enjoyed learning about Viking clothing by pushing buttons to light up different articles and then dressing virtual dolls via a computer game. Another computer game taught visitors how to play a favoriting Viking board game – Hnefatafl. My husband and I attempted to play, but Bee insisted on moving all our pieces, much to our amusement! It reminded me of the Japanese game, go, and I would like to try playing it again.
Other favorite areas in the exhibit highlighted the skilled artisans and craftsmen of the Viking age. Once more, speakers added to the atmosphere by playing the sound of a hammer shaping a sword. I got shivers looking at some of the metal deity figures. Bee really enjoyed touching yarn, wool, and cow hide. She moved puzzle pieces to see the colors created by different herbs in the dying process – an interesting interactive element that I hadn’t ever seen before in a museum.
Although a small exhibit, and only able to hold a toddler’s interest for so long, I enjoyed learning more about my Viking ancestors. In particular, I feel that I have a better understanding of the women. The key charms continue to haunt me, and we’ll see what that means for me in the future.
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