Photo | Courtesy of the ROM

A captivating showcase of complex Norse lives

The Royal Ontario Museum’s VIKINGS offers a fascinating and original perspective on the lives and culture of the Scandinavian Vikings between the 8th and 11th centuries. The exhibit succeeds in dispelling commonly perpetuated myths about the Vikings by offering a detailed historical showcase of Norse life that spans all levels of society.

As a collaboration between the ROM and the Swedish History Museum, the exhibit presents the largest gathering of Viking artifacts in North America. Dr. Craig Cipolla, the ROM’s Associate Curator of North American Archaeology, describes VIKINGS as “[providing] visitors with a holistic perspective on who the Norse were, how they changed through time, and how they constantly pushed the boundaries of their world through innovation and curation.” The introduction of the exhibit is quick to clarify misconceptions surrounding the term “Vikings;” it is not meant to define the people of the Viking Age, but rather, it is the Norse term for trade expeditions. VIKINGS also eliminates the common contemporary assumption of horned helmets as being prevalent in Viking society; in actuality, Viking helmets were rare finds.

The architecture of the gallery is reminiscent of a ship voyage, with angular structural configurations and displays that contain historical images, all constructed with waves and curves shaped like a boat’s hull. The calming ambience of the exhibition is encapsulated by large prints of rural Scandinavian landscapes lining the gallery, complemented by a serene woodwind soundtrack.

In addition to eliminating the myth of Vikings as exclusively masculine pillagers, the exhibit focuses on the essential role women played in the family and farming centres of Viking life. Items of aristocratic women, such as stunning box brooches, made apparent the power wielded by women.

The exhibit’s highlight is its interactive features, such as the opportunity to virtually dress up men, women, and children of the Viking age in clothes that would dictate their social status and roles, like “Lady of the House” or the enslaved “unfreed” people. Other entertaining activities include writing names in Norse runes with magnetic tiles, virtually excavating a Viking boat grave, and listening to the Vikings tell oral stories of their gods. 

Notable displays include a remarkable reconstruction of a wooden Viking boat on loan from the Swedish History Museum, as well as a striking centrepiece molded by dimly lit boat rivets hanging on clear strings in the shape of a ship.

The exhibition also illustrates the depth of the Viking people’s beliefs in their gods. The symbols and responsibilities of famous gods and goddesses of the Viking Age, such as Odin, Thor, and Loki, were on display. For example, deities were assigned a day of the week; Thor, the chief protector of all gods and humans, belonged to Thursday.  

The final section of the exhibit was dedicated to the Vikings’ exploration of Canada’s East Coast, presenting artifacts found in Newfoundland and Nunavut. A refreshing note made by the curators recognized how the false discoveries of Norse artifacts in North America undermine the existence of Indigenous populations during the Viking Age and reaffirm dangerous falsehoods about Canada’s origins. This distinction closed the exhibit in a manner reflective of a cultural awareness about colonization.

The ROM’s expansive VIKINGS exhibit broadens the representations of the Viking people beyond the archetypical warriors who only sought to plunder and raid other civilizations. The exhibition thoughtfully examines the unique Viking culture cultivated through religious and cultural exchanges with other nations. VIKINGS: The Exhibition deftly embodies the ROM’s curatorial strengths and creates a curious, engrossing atmosphere reminiscent of a seafaring journey for visitors of all ages.


VIKINGS: The Exhibition is on display until April 2nd, 2018 at the Royal Ontario Museum.