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Poets as Well as Plunderers: The British Museum's New Viking Exhibit Is a Hit And Miss Affair

10/03/2014 14:38 GMT | Updated 07/05/2014 10:59 BST

The problem with the British Museum's new show,Vikings: Life and Legend, isn't the, at times, lack-lustre exhibits, nor the repetitiveness of said exhibits - how many cloak pins and measuring weights do we have to see before we get the point - nor the, by now familiar dialogue which curators seem to be having with themselves in exhibitions these days, by and large over the heads of visitors. No, it's the venue itself. The BM's new Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries have none of the charm of the old Reading Room and their division into narrow partitioned areas for this show means that the large number of visitors who were trying to snake, painfully slowly around the first few exhibition cases caused a jam running way back into the Great Court.

As well as the tightly packed crowds, what greets you on first entering has nothing much to recommend it. A few gold and silver trinkets, delicate and beautiful in their own way, but impossible to appreciate when you're craning over the heads of a dozen people in front of you. And besides, this is supposed to be about Vikings, isn't it? What about the blood-curdling battle cries, the berserk, swash-buckling cut and thrust, the shrieking valkyries and sinister one-eyed gods, Kirk Douglas on speed? Anyone would think the BM's Vikings were jewellery-obsessed tradesmen and not much else. Consummate seafarers, it's true they traded from the Middle East to the eastern seaboard of North America, but even this crucial aspect of their success gets lost among the tiny coins and tinier pinheads from which we are supposed to construct the Viking world with little else to help us.

There's nothing to wow, at least to start off with, and with a new exhibition space to test out on the public the curators should have done more to grab our attention at the outset. Instead we listen to the mellifluous tones of Old Norse sagas in Old Norse, which sounds good but means nothing, and look at some very nice photographs of mountains and lakes as recompense for the lack of any greater visual stimulus.

It's true, half way through the show picks up with some quite spectacular pieces of Nordic swag and on the way we've learned how the Vikings sailed up the rivers of Russia and gave us, well, Russia, and threatened the walls of Constantinople itself, finding common cause with the Muslim Caliphate, settled in England, France, Iceland and Greenland, but I was left wondering why these people were so much more fearsome in reputation than the Franks or the Anglo-Saxons or the Slavs. According to one eye-witness, they even wore eye liner, men and women, because it made them look prettier.

Just as preconceptions begin to shatter, the exhibition hits you with its pièce de resistance, a semi-reconstruction, using original timbers, of the largest Viking longship ever discovered. Roskilde 6, excavated in Denmark in 1997, for a few months at least now dominates the final gallery. We're told it was only possible to bring this incredibly fragile thing over because of the controlled environment of the new exhibition space. But why did they have to make the gallery itself so industrial? The ship, or rather its carcass, or rather a steel rendition of its carcass, is immensely impressive in size and presence, and at last we're given a sense of the pagan madness and mystery that has clung to these people ever since their sails first appeared on our eastern horizons. Swords, helmets, shields and amulets, rock art and witches' wands, and even this sterile space begins to feel like a sacred grove or deep wooded fiord.

And then with a final glance at the mighty warship, you're gone, because that's it and there's not much point in trying to battle your way back towards the earlier galleries to renew your appreciation of what they have to offer; for only now do you realise that these people were poets as well as plunderers.

State of the art the Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries may be in terms of conservation, but they feel temporary, lacking in atmosphere, and because of their almost total failure to capture the audience's imagination early on, the exhibition's curators have managed to make these extraordinary people seem tame and bloodless; so my advice would be to ignore the trashy photos and Old Norse intonations and head straight for the bling and the boat, and maybe your illusions will not be quite so shattered, whether they're about the terrifying sea warriors of your childhood imagination, or the BM's ability to pull off a good show. And read a book before you go.