Rehabilitation, or Overcorrection? An Afternoon with the Warriors of the North Sea

by Bryan & Heather

When we began planning our trip to Pittsburgh in 2023, Bryan knew that one of our destinations had to be the Carnegie Science Center, an interactive museum located on the northern shore of the Allegheny River (which provides convenient berthing for the USS Requin, it’s WWII-era submarine). As our plans took shape, we learned to our pleasant surprise that the Science Center would be hosting a traveling exhibit on Vikings while we were there. Additional tickets or not, there was no way Bryan was going to pass up such a serendipitous confluence of events, and so after exploring for a bit and catching a film in the amazing Rangos Giant Cinema, we lined up for our designated entry time to see some real Viking artifacts.

Formally titled Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea, this traveling exhibition consists largely of items from the collections of the Danish monarchy, and is curated in large part by the National Museum of Denmark. As befits such a direct-from-the-source pedigree, the artifacts on display were indeed exquisite examples of early medieval Scandinavian material culture, from metalwork and jewelry to the omnipresent arms and armor of some of the most feared warriors of the period.

Yet at the same time, it is evident from early on in the exhibit that its hometown connection also results in a somewhat biased interpretation of its subject matter. Despite its title (clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of Vikings and their “cool,” “masculine” image in modern culture), Warriors of the North Sea actively plays down the connection between Scandinavians, raiding, and political upheaval in Western Europe from the eighth to eleventh centuries. Visitors are assured that violent pursuits of land and wealth were never a regular part of life for the majority of Scandinavians, and the only explicit political events references are the unification of Denmark under Harald Finehair and its subsequent Christianization; if you’re not already familiar with it, you’ll leave still ignorant of the widespread devastation caused by Viking armies in the British Isles. Those with a discerning eye might be able to notice something strange on their own, however, given the huge proportion of weaponry and warlike objects on display–about half of all artifacts in the collection.

This is not to say that Warriors of the North Sea should have simply been a museum version of bloody historical epics like Vikings or The Last Kingdom; in fact, we appreciated the effort to contextualize Scandinavian society and interpret what daily life would have been like for these peoples on the edge of the known world. Yet here, too, the interpretation could have used some more balance. As with most modern exhibits, numerous televisions played instructive clips on a loop for visitors, yet rather than use them to enliven different historical themes and topics, all but one of these TVs simply played a different story from Norse mythology–a decision we couldn’t help but suspect was an effort to play into more of that modern surface-level fascination.

By the time we exited the special exhibit pavilion, we couldn’t help but feel that Warriors of the North Sea should serve as a lesson to public historians that even the most polished of modern exhibits, replete with stunning artifacts, can fall short if it isn’t balanced and thoughtful in the history it conveys. Whether through its pandering to common stereotypes or its overcorrection in trying to rehabilitate medieval Scandinavians’ image, this effort at relating the history of the Vikings simply fell flat, and I might almost say that one could receive a better education on the topic in most aspects through watching one of those aforementioned dramatic series. Those don’t come with actual pieces of the past, however, and for the opportunity to see those, we can’t fully regret our choice of spending some of our afternoon with the warriors of the North Sea.

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