Hurry on over, before the Vikings set sail and you miss your chance

The Jelling Stone

Vikings: Beyond the Legend
Royal Alberta Museum
Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 am to 5 pm, until October 20, 2019

review and photographs by Catherine Paet-Pondanera

Are you ready to cross swords with the Vikings? Watch as they navigate through a storm, or help them row their warship in the Royal Alberta Museum’s feature gallery, Vikings: Beyond the Legend? If you can only visit one exhibit in the museum, choose the Vikings. This immersive experience is well worth the time; but don’t wait too long, since the Vikings plan to sail off to a new destination on October 20, 2019. 

One of the three boats used as support for a burial ship, thought to hold a great warrior killed in battle

As I enter the exhibit room, I am introduced to a short video which opens up the world of the Vikings. Much to my disbelief, Vikings had actual lives working on the farm. Thunder rumbles softly in the background, the dim light setting up the scene of a storm. Images of warriors line the walls, and artifacts aged around a thousand years old are encased in glass. 

Artifacts line hallways, dating back to over a thousand years ago, ranging from ship parts, to weapon fragments, to jewelery

Surprisingly, I find no horns on their helmets. I do see plenty of battleaxes, though they prefer to use swords. Snippets of text help to provide a decent understanding of the Viking way of life, but it’s more interesting to observe the intricacies of each item. The blades of the swords are chipped and rusty, but I find the hilt surprisingly in good shape, and the golden trinkets shine as though they were made yesterday. It would help if one of the three employees offered their expertise, but instead they just wandered aimlessly through the exhibit. A guided tour, similar to the one in the National Museum of Denmark (from which the exhibit was borrowed), would bring the text and the objects to life. Instead, the artifacts lay in their cold, glass cases, their stories hidden in plain sight. 

What truly brought the exhibit to life was its interactivity. The replica swords and chainmail are on display to tinker with, though much to my disappointment, I couldn’t challenge any Vikings to a duel to the death. Not that I could have moved with the chainmail on me anyways. I may not be the strongest person in the room, but the chainmail probably weighed the same as me. Further along in the journey, I find the husk of a Viking warship, ROSKILDE 6, the longest of its kind discovered. While modern hands created the metal skeleton, the wooden planks are from the original ship. Believe it or not, there is one thing bigger than the ROSKILDE 6: my disappointment seeing it. Considering all the hype the museum created for the ship, I expected something spectacular. Wow, a big ship; now what? I could have watched the Vikings row the ROSKILDE 6 on the interactive tablet, but instead I leave the giant husk to row with the virtual Vikings on a smaller ship. Much more fun! 

Replica of the Jelling Stone, the original created by King Harald Bluetooth, telling the story of the establishment of Christianity as Denmark’s religion, in honour of his deceased parents, King Gorm and Queen Thyre. Part of a project first started by King Gorm as a memorial for Queen Thyre

After rowing a bit, reading up on some facts, and challenging a friend to a Viking board game, I find the true centrepiece of the exhibit: the dress up station! They have several everyday outfits to choose from. Unfortunately, there isn’t any chainmail or armour to try on. I pose with the digital Vikings on the tablet, hiding my discomfort in the rough material. I wish I could spend more time playing dress up, but the kids in line grow impatient, and I fear their judgement.

Having some fun dressing up in common Viking attire

What truly impressed me about the exhibit was how much I thought I knew and didn’t. While How to Train Your Dragon might’ve been a pretty good film, the portrayal of the Viking was completely off, even excluding the dragons. Some Vikings may have been warriors, but they were also farmers, traders, and explorers. They had their own special art and board games, which aren’t very common in popular fiction. The exhibit does a beautiful job walking us through each different lifestyle. There is something for everyone to enjoy. So hurry on over, before the Vikings set sail and you miss your chance to learn about this amazing culture.

Vikings: Beyond the Legend