I went to see the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum last weekend. Having very much enjoyed Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum last year, I had high hopes for this visit. I was disappointed. First of all, I don’t like the space. The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is at the back of the Great Court, and feels like a long narrow shape, that isn’t helped by the partitioning in the introductory section. It didn’t cope well with even the early Sunday morning press of visitors. Museum staff urged us not to queue, but to bypass the visitors who’d elected to take an audio-guide. Of course bypassing the visitors meant bypassing the objects they were looking at. I’d assumed that we were being urged to go pass them, because there had been a sudden knot of visitors, and that we’d be able to double back when blockage was clear. In fact more and more visitors came in behind us, and we were carried along by the flow, with no real opportunity to return to the earlier objects. So I saw NOTHING in the first gallery, and maybe three objects clearly in the middle section, before tumbling into the final section where the (largest but actually least impressive) boat from Roskilde was displayed.
By Odin, I grew to hate the audioguides! Their users huddled, immobile, in front of most objects, obscuring them from view. The devices themselves appeared to be Samsung phones, in a “don’t steal me” case, and as I stood admiring the backs of a family of visitors, in lieu of the object they were looking at, I thought about the computing power in that device and how it might be used to moderate flow.
That device likely had the ability to know where it was, and to exchange data with and process data from any number of other devices and sensors in the the gallery. Rather than a scripted tour, here was a prime opportunity for an adaptive narrative, a program that could direct visitors’ attention to objects across the exhibit, spreading them out, and maybe saying less before offering the visitor the opportunity to move on when spaces are busy, and sharing more when they are quieter. In this age of Google and Facebook, its surely not beyond the wit of man to build a program that keeps family groups together and sends more independent visitors off on a journey of discovery.
That said, the interpretation wasn’t much cop either, nothing as splendid as the emotional story and insightful details revealed by the Pompeii exhibition (which surely must have been even more crowded, but enabled every visitor to get close to every object. The most enjoyable things were the quotes from the likes of Ahmad ibn Fadlan and his contemporaries placed high upon the walls (where thankfully I could see them) in vinyl lettering.
In short, I didn’t get my (wife’s) money’s worth. I can’t recommend it, unless you are really interested in Vikings. And if you are, I suggest you get chummy with somebody who works for sponsors BP, then you might be able to wangle a private view.