Putting a Human Face on the Vikings

A myth-busting exhibition at Discovery Times Square
February 24, 2016 Updated: February 24, 2016

Leif Ericson and the Vikings have returned to America, a millennium after their island-hopping sea voyage from Norway and Iceland, to Greenland and then Vinland in North America, establishing colonies along the way.

Although the famed Viking seafarer Leif, son of Eric the Red, and his small clan stayed in L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada for seven years, they left quite an impression elsewhere. Not necessarily with the indigenous people—who thought they had been poisoned when fed cow’s milk on lactose-sensitive stomachs—but with Western civilization.

The Vikings, spanning the three chief Scandinavian countries—Norway, Denmark, Sweden—ventured out and setup trade routes (Poland, Russia, Mediterranean Sea), protected kingdoms (France, Istanbul), and founded cities (York, Dublin, Kiev) over a spectacular 300-year period, from 793 to 1095 CE.

What Discovery’s “Vikings” exhibition does extremely well is systematically break down the raiding, looting, and horned-helmet stereotypes that have been branded far too long in the modern psyche. As the tour guide said, regarding the horns, “You can blame composer Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ for that myth.” To this day, archeologists have found not a single piece of evidence showing horns or wings mounted on a Viking helmet.

Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)
Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)

Myth-Busting Thor’s Hammer Style

In 1980, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held a successful exhibit, “The Vikings,” which ran from Oct. 4, 1980 to Jan. 4, 1981. That exhibition had followed in the wake of the popular show at the British Museum in London earlier that year.

From its press preview at the time, the Met wrote:

“This wealth of material will be organized to show the development of Viking art and to show the Vikings
as warriors, traders, and explorers in Europe and the North Atlantic
from the 8th century to the 11th century A.D.”

Thirty-six years later, Discovery Times Square outshines the Met on technology alone, but it also does so with the vast array of rare and genuine artifacts shipped over from Sweden, with 542 pieces, of which nine out of 10 objects are real. The full-size replica Viking ship and a three-minute tri-screen video at the entrance sets the tone for an enjoyable tour to the past.

The focus of the Discovery show revolves around four key areas: How the Norse lived, from the clothes they wore to the dwellings they lived in; how they built and sailed ships; how they forged tools and weapons that boasted intricate designs and decorations; and how the Vikings’ mythology and belief systems enriched their lives with nature and the universe.

Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)
Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)

Discovery takes great care to transform staid museum experiences of the past—the exhibit does have 73 display cases—by making several of them interactive, such as the three-dimensional archaeological dig of a bow of a Viking ship. In that backlit display, iron rivets, hanging by nylon-string, form the outline of a hull, just as the scholars had recently found it in the ground, sans the wooden planks, which had disintegrated over the centuries, reclaimed by the earth.

Iron rivets from the hull of a Viking ship are reassembled and suspended in the same formation they were found by archeologists at a dig site. (James Grundvig)
Iron rivets from the hull of a Viking ship are reassembled and suspended in the same formation they were found by archeologists at a dig site. (James Grundvig)

Eye-Popping Exhibits

The two best exhibits I have seen in a long time, at any museum, include interactive screens on Norse mythology and the natural resources it took to build a single, 75-foot Viking longship.

A small coastal Viking long ship replica, made in Roskilde, Denmark, the site of a major Viking archeological dig. The ship was re-assembled in NYC. (James Grundvig)
The Viking longship Gokstad, found in Oslo, Norway, the site of a major Viking archeological dig. (James Grundvig)

In the former, the Norse belief that a “World Tree” or Yggsdrasil, held the nine worlds of the universe together—five sky-worlds, including Asgard and Valhalla, Middle Earth, and three underworlds—is symbolically not too far off from our own Milky Way. Only recently, we learned that our galaxy is hyperconnected by a galactic DNA super-strand with another 150,000 galaxies in our corner of the cosmos.

Even better than the rotating World Tree, a 3D interactive display allows visitors to tap with their fingers the tons of raw materials that go into building one longship. Quickly, one sees that in order to build an average size ship, the Vikings needed to neuter a forested hill of ash, pine, and oak trees, mine numerous iron ore pits for the rivets and fasteners, sheer a huge flock of sheep, and cut off 600 horse-tails to weave the hair into rope for the rigging of the sail.

This week, Discovery Times Square will have Viking actors entertain and educate the crowd.

Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)
Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)

Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)
Artifacts on display at VIKINGS NYC exhibition, the largest display of Viking artifacts ever to visit North America. (Paul Martinka for Discovery Times Square)

For a first generation Norwegian-American, who has researched and visited many of the archeological sites of the Vikings in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and north of the Arctic Circle, I highly recommend anyone who has an appreciation for Norse shipbuilding, mythology, and life style, and who would like to learn more about how Tors-dag (Thor’s-Day) turned into Thursday, to head Discovery Times Square and embrace the past with the technology of the future.

The Vikings Exhibition runs from Feb. 5 – Sept. 5, 2016, at Discovery Times Square: 226 West 44th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

James Ottar Grundvig is CEO of Cloudnician LLC, a mobile-cloud startup with big data pull. Since 2005, James has written and published from New York City as a freelance journalist and columnist.