12 January 2020

Víkingr in Oslo

Here in dismal, grey, snowless Oslo it was a delight to visit the Historical Museum and especially its exhibition called Víkingr. The museum is currently being renovated, so this exhibition is a pared-down version of its old Viking Age exhibition, but also a long-term stop-gap while we wait for the new Viking museum on Bygdøy in 2025. It's quite minimalist, in terms of both the way it is presented and what it presents. I suppose that is partly because of limited space during the renovations and partly from a recognition that the Viking Age is such an extensive and complex phenomenon that it is hard to encompass it all in one exhibition. So on entering the room the visitor is told to expect 'a selection of exceptional objects that reflect the world of the Vikings and what they valued'. This seems to me like a good idea - it admits it's only a partial view of the subject and gives the exhibition focus, even if it does lead to a slightly clichéd emphasis on war and bling. There is no 'daily life in the Viking Age' as we were also promised there wouldn't be in the big exhibition of 2013-14 - which was a shame in the much bigger exhibition, but fine for this one.

Entering the room is a delight. It's a beautiful room in its own right, but is also very beautifully lit and laid out. The cases are all the same size and it is easy to follow them through the room in a logical order, with each row of three given an introduction on the wall to the right. The labels on the cases are very low down (for smaller people, or those in wheelchairs?) but there is a booklet you can borrow which gives general information and full details of all the exhibits. (You can also download the booklet in either Norwegian or English.) The massive Dynna rune-stone at the end and the logo behind it break up the monotony and draw the eye through the room, and you get to appreciate the art nouveau details of this very fine building from 1902.

The exhibits themselves move logically from international contact and the riches acquired from there to war and its accoutrements, ending with religion and new ways. This does mean that the vast majority of the items displayed are of metal, with just a few beads and the rune-stone breaking up this heavy metal emphasis. But I'm not complaining, for some of the absolutely top metal objects from the museum's collections are on display: the gold hoard from Hoen, the Gjermundbu helmet, and plenty of coins, jewellery (including some made from bits of metalwork acquired in the west), Thor's hammers and weaponry. The other non-metal exhibit is the skull of the young lady from Nordre Kjølen that featured in a recent National Geographic documentary on women warriors which I discussed in a previous post. The curators of the exhibition are suitably cautious as to whether or not this burial represents a female warrior, I was glad to see, and present alternative explanations.

In addition to the burial from Nordre Kjølen, women are well represented, in part by their jewellery (there are plenty of both oval and trefoil brooches) and by the magnificent Dynna stone. This has always been a striking element of the museum's exhibitions. It is a roughly 3-metre high pillar of sandstone on which a mother commemorates her deceased daughter Ástríðr, the 'handiest maiden in Hadeland' (her name is in the picture to the right) with a runic inscription and Christian images, particularly of the Epiphany (so very seasonally appropriate, even if a few days late).

On the whole, I would say the exhibition is small but perfectly-formed, like the little gold serpent from the Hoen hoard pictured left, and well worth a visit. Also, if you buy a ticket to the Historical Museum, you also get in free at the current Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy, also a beautiful building containing some fabulous objects. I only wonder why they called this exhibition Víkingr (just one Viking?). I myself would have gone for Víkingar (Vikings) or even Víking (a Viking expedition). Oh well, you can't have everything.


  1. Very interesting article. On my next trip to Oslo, I definitely want to visit the Historical Museum.

  2. The beautiful building in which this exhibition is located has now been revealed in its refurbished state, see https://www.khm.uio.no/om/aktuelt/aktuelle-saker/2020/historisk-museum-avduket.html