Friday, March 09, 2007

What's in a Name?

When the initial planning meeting for the Smithsonian's exhibit 'Vikings, North Atlantic Saga' was held, there was considerable discussion, both formally and over drinks in the evenings about the use of the terms 'Viking' and 'Norse'. The thirty or so at the sessions were gathered from the 'big names' in popular VA research, curators of major museums, cultural ministers from all the North Atlantic countries. Pretty high powered talent.

In the end the argument boiled down to this:
On one hand everyone recognized the responsibility we all had as educators to correct stereotypes. To use the correct term NORSE as defining a specific * material culture *.
On the other hand everyone clearly understood the painful truth that 'funding drives the event'. No funding, no exhibit. In the end it came down to simple 'product recognition'. 'Viking' brought in the ticket sales.

The subject resurfaced at the 2000 Viking Millennium Conference in Newfoundland. Curator of the exhibit Bill Fitzhugh did a presentation on the exhibit, and the subject of names came up in questions. That ended up a lot more heated - people actually yelling at each other.

The truth is that major institutions throughout Europe and North America will continue to use the incorrect term 'Viking' - because that is what the general public recognizes and responds to. Many museums make no apologies for this. Richard Hall of the Jorvik * Viking * Centre at York made a special point of featuring the use of advertising as the major reason for the success of that institution in his session at the conference. Good advertising yields large gate revenues, which in turn pay for the research. He made absolutely no apologies.

I certainly do my best to avoid the use of * Viking * as a single word description in all of my own presentation work. If you check over the documentation for World of the NORSE or the NORSE Encampment you will see this. I tend to use * Viking Age *, but that is a known definition used in academic circles. As an example of how my own work has been degraded by mere advertising: The presentation I created for L'Anse aux Meadows was always titled the 'Norse Encampment' in all my production notes and documentation. The agency who commissioned the project was called the 'Viking Trail Tourism Association'. So they (without informing me) changed the name on everything that was published. When Parks Canada assumed control of the presentation (thankfully!) several years latter, they retained the incorrect term in the name for continuity.

A bald truth to museum work - it is "The Art of the Possible".

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