Meeting the Vikings in the flesh: The Saga Museum and mythologized history
Gudrun D Whitehead (University of Iceland)
Paper short abstract:
This presentation explores the presence of traditional oral storytelling traditions in the Saga Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, where history, mythology and theater are used in order to narrate local traditions and identity through the exhibition texts and mannequins.
Paper long abstract:
Walking through the large, industrial-looking metal door, and adjusting to the atmospheric darkness, visitors to the Saga Museum in Reykjavik first encounter a volcanic eruption. This firmly sets the tone for the exhibition of the Viking age in Iceland, told through realistic silicone figures posed to depict some of the age's most dramatic moments, according to popular tradition and historical manuscripts. The presentation, based on research currently under development, focuses on the legend of Vikings and heroism as represented in the museum, where facts and fictions are joined in a single narrative in order to present a mythologized version of local history and identity. Audiences can experience the making, or reaffirming of Icelandic heritage in silicone. It is a commodity, created for tourists and Icelandic school children. The inaccuracy of the exhibition's narrative and its reliance on debatable historical theories has previously been criticised. Instead, this article argues that the Saga Museum's exhibition actually represents a continuation of Icelandic oral storytelling traditions, which date back to before the medieval Icelandic literary manuscripts. This is evident in the exhibition narrative where the communal myths of Iceland's origin are seamlessly mixed with historical events without a clear distinction between facts and fictions. To this effect, the exhibition is performative. In order to gain the desired effect on visitors, various oral storytelling devices are used, including text panels, audio-guides, theatrical techniques and macabre realism. Through these shared collective oral (his)stories, a national character is forged, one of perceived strength and independence.