Vikings, the barbaric heroes: exploring the Viking image in museums in Iceland and England and its impact on identity
Gudrun D. Whitehead
University of Leicester: Doctor of Philosophy, School of Museum Studies, March (2013)
Vikings: a term so well known that it instantaneously evokes an image of bloodthirsty warriors, weapons, hoards, burning monasteries and heroic battles. Despite growing academic knowledge about the limitations of this stereotype of Vikings, it is nevertheless strongly rooted within popular culture. How can visitors to museums help us to understand the role of Vikings in constructing, maintaining and modifying collective, national and personal identities? This research explores the image of Vikings in English and Icelandic society and in two museums, Víkingaheimar in Reykjanesbær, Iceland and Yorkshire Museum in Yorkshire, England. The aim of this thesis is analyse visitor responses to museum representations of the Vikings. Its findings demonstrate the role of collective memory in the meaning creation process within museums and the use of the Viking stereotype as a trope in order to construct collective, national and individual identities. Furthermore, by exploring individual responses to history, the research advances understanding of the impact within modern society of the Viking image and its representation within museums. It also shows how history, in particular, history beyond living memory, is used in order to make sense of present social issues.
Fieldwork conducted at Víkingaheimar and Yorkshire Museum is analysed using theories on historical distancing, collective social memory, nationalism, otherness and representation within museums. These theories are discussed in relation to identity formation and collective memory to examine the role and influences of the Vikings and their age upon modern Icelandic and English society. The results show that participants in the study used the collective social past in order to rationalise present social issues and events. This enabled a positive interpretation and fluid formations of their various identities within the museum exhibition. Additionally, participants made the past more personal by reflecting on their own identity through history. Participants in this study are shown to interpret the past based upon collective memory, ignoring the museum’s historical exhibition narrative in favour of their pre-existing ideas on history.