Monday, 11 August 2014

Valiant Vikings Family Workshop - Mary Cook

What connects Vikings of the 10th Century and Victorians of 1840? If you came to the Ashmolean Museum for the Valiant Vikings event you will have a fighting chance of knowing the answer to that question. 

You will also know how to embarrass a Viking, why Vikings did not come to England by aeroplane; why so many of the silver brooches in the Cuerdale Hoard were chopped to pieces and why bones were not found at the site of the find.  You might even know why finders weren’t always keepers.

When I arrived at the Ashmolean Museum fresh from induction tours of the University Museums and buzzing with anticipation, I was given my very first placement task: create a trail on Vikings for famillies. I did not know the collection terribly well then, but what a fun thing to do – spend time touring the museum looking at fabulous objects. 

 Vikings then.  Here we go.   

Challenge one, find the objects.
The Ashmolean in that first week felt huge and slightly disorientating but I found a small collection of Viking items in Gallery 41, the England Gallery along with helpful display boards to give me some time and place context. I wrote down accession numbers and carried on down to the lower galleries where I found Rune Stones and Viking coins and a wonderful picture of Smaug from The Hobbit. 

Challenge two, find pictures of the objects. 
When the museum is about to launch a new exhibition is not the best time to be looking for images.  Some of the items I liked were on loan to us so could not be directly referenced, some were not yet in the image archive and some held copyright restrictions, picture library staff were run off their feet getting ready for the Discovering Tutankhamun  exhibition.   Necessity is the mother of invention and the rest of the team gave invaluable help in working around these restrictions.  

Challenge three, print the trail.
For some reason the photocopier elected to breakdown the day I needed to print out 100 copies of the trail.  Turns out there is another copier in Antiquities.  Not an antiquated one either, so that did the job.  

Viking trail

Challenge Four prepare the craft activity and plan the event. 
This was so much fun, I created a longboat craft,  and also found inspiration on the internet via Pinterest for Viking craft ideas.  One of these was using card, glue and tinfoil to create Viking Brooches.  My version differed by taking inspiration from the forms found in our collection – tortoise oval shape, animal head shape and circle.  Some children who came recognised the craft as being similar to Celtic or Anglo Saxon forms, which sparked conversation about how migration enables cultural transference – well, all right, not exactly in those terms!  

Brooch activity examples

When devising crafts, I like to think about the value to families beyond the event. It was great to watch a brother and sister sailing their longboats over choppy seas as they left the education studio too.  I also really like crafts which link to the narrative of the collection and the relevant objects we hold here.  The brooch was good, but I also wanted to introduce the concept of hack silver and add some differentiation for children who either prefer non messy crafts or whose families had less time to spend on the activity.  A colour and cut out at home brooch jigsaw fitted that purpose and drew attention to the fact that much of the Cuerdale hoard was hacksilver, cut up and broken down either to make new pieces or to share out as a war chest. I also had some white card template blanks for colouring just in case too, so that there could be differentiation but not exclusion from the activity – you could still add a pin and have a brooch.  At least one family found this helpful.  We were able to offer a range of choices for design and embellishment which children clearly valued. We had several comments from children from this event, showing that they felt able to give feedback and be heard. 

brooch jigsaw

The longboat craft was also a non messy craft, cut out and colour, but I chose to keep the design empty to allow for real freedom. I saw a granddad happily colouring along side the grandchildren, he had put a red skull on the black sail of his longboat and was having a chat with the children about his design and theirs. We had longboats and sails of all kinds of colours and I saw some parents added Vikings made from scrap card to add to the play value for their younger child. While two mums chatted, two boys were singing strange high pitched songs while waving longboats they had made, because Vikings sing that way apparently. The simplicity and lack of mess from this craft meant it could take place in the atrium which is visible from several floors in the museum and is at a main point of access.  This helped families become aware of the other opportunities to take part in our Vikings event.

One of the mums and a couple of grans made brooches of their own alongside the children. Some families did one activity, some did everything we offered.  

Challenge Five: Brief Volunteers and Deliver the Event 

The volunteer team consisted of both very experienced team members and those who were new on the day. Where possible it is helpful for experienced volunteers or staff to work alongside new volunteers.  It was good to observe some good mentoring between the volunteers and good examples of using initiative to ensure that we did not run out of items needed to continue the activities.  They also did not hesitate to ask for support or clarification where needed which I really appreciated. I especially liked that the team worked together so seamlessly to ensure families were welcomed, had everything they needed and were aware of all that was on offer.

One criticism (the only criticism) I received was that volunteers did not know all the details of the event, eg where the tour would be delivered or how long it would last.  This was something I could have done better, it was an oversight on my part and I think I need to create a briefing checklist for future events.  This will help me to ensure all the volunteers know what is being offered, where, when , by whom and for how long.  

As well as the crafts and trail we offered a Story Tour in the England Gallery.  This meant gathering people from both rooms. I had a toy sword which I held aloft and called out “Follow the sword for a Viking Story Tour!” People gathered and kept together using this technique, though it would be disruptive to use if other groups were touring in the space at the same time. The tour took us to the second floor so it was helpful for people to keep together and not feel forgotten.  The story was about the accidental discovery by workmen of the Cuerdale hoard, but I needed to create links between three time periods, now, the Vikings in 905 AD and 1840. I also needed to reference different locations beginning with Scandanavia and concluding with Lancashire. It was good to be in the Ashmolean for this – there are timelines and orientation maps of the world to use and a sword makes a handy pointer! 

Story tour

We reviewed what we had made by rowing our longboats from the World map in the East meets West Gallery to the England Gallery just as Vikings came by boat from Scandanavia.  We stopped by the timeline and talked about what a timeline is and how far back the Vikings were in time and when they came to England.  Children joined in, happy to put on a cloak, hold up a sword and an axe and find that without a brooch an heroic Viking would be embarrassed as his cloak would fall to the floor – lots of laughter at that! Then we moved forward on the timeline to Queen Victoria’s Wedding which was a few months before the Cuerdale find.  We moved around the gallery using story, song, questions and role play to really experience what it was like for the workmen of Preston hearing about the stories of treasure near where they lived (fireside story which moved us to the far side of the gallery). We had talked about working conditions for people at work in Preston and the levels of poverty there.  This made the find which appeared from behind the Large Rune Stone, much as it had appeared unexpected from the river bank very thrilling for the children who were crowding in to see it with great excitement.   They felt sad when I told how one of Lord Cuerdale’s staff declared it belonged to the landowner and was of no significance in any case being “tin buttons and bits of solder” to quote Joseph Kenyon’s account of June 1840. They really put themselves in the shoes of the workmen in the story. 

I concluded the tour with questions about why the Hoard was buried there, the children by this time told me they thought Vikings had buried it. One child told me he thought it was buried there as grave goods – we were able to talk about why usually archaeological finds are often from graves but this one was not. We talked about the location and its proximity to Dublin and the date being assessed by reference to the coins in the hoard. Children asked and answered lots of interesting questions.  They had shown empathy with both the Vikings and the Victorians in the story, but when I asked them whether these 8000 coins and 7 stone in silver was the finest treasure in all of England they were not sure.  We reviewed our “journey” and I left the families to admire the Alfred Jewel while thinking about what treasure is.   

Comments cards showed the event had been appreciated, but the one to one conversations and questions following the story tour as well as seeing the engagement of the audience showed me what those cards did not tell.  I had worked with an audience who learnt something new, felt empathy for others, made sense of objects maps and timelines in the museum and were even shocked and surprised at different points in the tour, a great privilege for me and something I hope to see more and more as my heritage learning career progresses.


  1. Great post Mary! Really interesting to hear how you went about putting the activities together, and I love the brooches!

  2. Thank you for your feedback. The trail and object research has also resulted in self guided resources for schools so was a really worthwhile activity for me and the Ashmolean. On the strength of these our first school Vikings visit has been booked for the Autumn Term.