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"Vikings" at The Field Museum review

I have new swim lessons, a dinner, and a museum exhibit to cover in the next few posts so hang in there. I'm starting with the exhibit just because I feel like there's probably more interest in hearing about it. But also because it was probably our favorite part of the day for DLP's birthday.

One of the reasons we picked The Field Museum is we both were interested in the new temporary exhibit and it's one of our favorites even if the kids don't find it enjoyable. So having a babysitter for the day was the perfect chance to visit. And "Vikings" didn't disappoint...from both the "quality" angle and in terms of not being kid-friendly. The exhibit is decidedly low-tech with artifact cases and long written displays to read. Whether you see this as a good thing or bad thing is up to you. We found it refreshingly old-fashioned, personally.

Be warned, it took us around an hour and 30 minutes to get from the entrance doors to the standard gift-shop-at-exit. Allow plenty of time.

Each room probably has 1-2 high tech screens or displays. A touchscreen explanation of the world of Norse myth. The ability to learn and play a Viking-era board game. A quiz for you and a friend to compete against each other on Viking knowledge. Or sometimes it's as simple as rivets on clear fishing line to show the outline of a boat. Or demo of how much deforestation happened under the Vikings to support their lifestyle. (600 horse tails!)

One of my criticisms was the layout. With a crowd of people entering, it was hard to decide what direction some of the cases were meant to be viewed from. The outside of the room? Inside of the room? It needed to either be "no order" like many of the newer museum exhibits or a very clear linear progression through a story. Another issue, for me, was that what really made the exhibit "pop" was the explanation of daily life and culture for these people. Many of the background photos on the walls showed vivid recreations of Viking life...longhouses, clothing, cooking, etc.. I was motivated to know more when leaving, but the experience could have been extra special if it was more immersive. Could have been more kid-friendly, too, in that instance. I'd have liked to visually see inside a village or voyage. "Vikings" hints at it with sounds, especially. I almost wished we could have seen some historic re-enactment like we do in a few other Field Museum exhibits. (Note that this is an outside exhibit so not really their "fault.")

So what's "Vikings" about? It aims to retell the story of the culture from roughly 700-1200 away from the stereotype of horned helmets (in fact, Vikings did not wear horned helmets...but they are available in the gift shop, ironically). They weren't even fierce raiders so much as farmers and traders who happened to mix their business with a little warfare now and then. Taking slaves mixed with blending in with native peoples. Vikings weren't even a people...it's a name for a trading or raiding expedition. You go on a viking. You are not a Viking. The exhibit explores the complicated world of gender roles, the free and unfree, status, and globalized spread of the Norse people. Far from the image of warriors intent on destruction, Vikings were a global trading culture that made it from Europe to Asia, North America, and even had a political role in some of the various world empires at the time. Intermarrying, guarding leaders...they locked up their storehouses with gorgeous hand-made silver keys. They combed and groomed themselves. They washed once a week (Saturday!).

Side note: if you go, stop and look at the weird, wonderful, and thought-provoking exhibit on "Bunky Echo-Hawk: Modern Warrior" that you walk through on your way from "Vikings" back to the main museum hall. It's bold, colorful, politically edgy art from a Nike and skateboard designing Pawnee who highlights past Native American abuses and the drive to keep the culture alive today. It's a small but interesting visit. It's also philosophically intriguing given the role that natural history museums are playing in the debate about Native American artifacts. This and the next exhibit I'll mention strike me as a bit "yay for us" cheerleading from the museum. In fact, I was initially down on this next one but won over by the coolness of it...

Overall, I give "Vikings" high marks. But it's also useful to take a visit up to the 2nd floor and contrast it with a newer exhibit called "Restoring Earth" which covers the topic of sustainability and helpful research being done at The Field. It usually numerous multimedia displays, interactives, and uniquely portrayed specimens from the Field collection to talk about everything from saving Peruvian forests to saving Chicago prairies. "Restoring Earth" looks at changing human behaviors to save native habitat, surprising knowledge we've gained through conservation, etc..

A few of my favorite highlights here were a display of the different varieties of seeds that should exist in a roughly square meter of Midwest land. There's a collection of sea shells from the Florida marine conservation area in the Keys where we thought there were 500 species of mollusks. It's actually more like 1700. Or there's the one species of moth that can save an endangered IL orchid. It was to the point where volunteers have had to hand-pollinate to bring the flower back. They have an example of the moth that usually helps the orchid breed...use a magnifying glass to see the proboscis required. But loss of habit means insects can't cover the distances required to reach the next flower. In the case of some of Chicago's frogs, specimens from the Field collection have shown that farm chemicals create frogs with both sex organs--leading to declines in the population. Good stuff to see people coming face to face with these problems.

I highly recommend a trip to The Field to see any or all of these sometime soon. Check the museum website, but "Vikings" runs through October 4, 2015.


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