The UK’s first ‘immersive experience’ museum is open again after flood damage. Nick Howes discovers it’s even better than before.
Jorvik Viking Centre’s USP has always been its smells. As soon as I walk through the door of the museum on a chilly Sunday morning, the pungent aroma of fires, fish and ancient feasts transports me back to my childhood visits.
It thrilled me as a wide-eyed schoolboy in the early 90s that funny smells were part of boring old history. My mates and I sniggered and held our noses, but we were secretly enchanted and it definitely drew us in to ancient Norse history.
Visiting as an adult, I’m just as intrigued and love the immersive experience that Jorvik provides. How the museum creates the smells is still top secret, but nowadays you can buy a scratch and sniff postcard from the gift shop to recreate them at home (note to self for the end of my visit). I’ve made my long-awaited return after hearing about Jorvik’s multi-million pound ‘reimagining’ following the floods which ravaged it in Christmas 2015. The attraction was closed for 16 months back then, robbing York of one of its most popular attractions.
Far from wallowing in their misfortune, the staff at the centre focused on the positives and saw the enforced closure as a chance for a revamp, bringing in cutting-edge technology to make Viking history even more vibrant, alive and relevant to today’s audience.
Before I venture into the Viking village I meet Jorvik’s Director of Attractions, Sarah Maltby, so she can fill me in on what has changed. As she speaks, her passion and pride in the project is obvious.
“This is a labour of love for everyone involved and as tragic as the floods were, it’s enabled us to do so much within the re-imagined experience,” she says. “The last time we had a full-scale redevelopment was back in 2000, so this gave us the opportunity to do things again, do it better and provide our most up-to-date interpretations about how the Vikings lived.”
That meant enlisting the help of some of the best academics, archaeologists and historians in the business and an American animatronics company who work with the likes of Universal and Disney were brought in to create their uber lifelike models.
The centre’s layout has also been transformed and the effect is impressive. As I enter the first gallery I’m greeted by an expansive glass floor which hovers above preserved Viking-age timbers. The room recreates the dig which unearthed a vast array of treasures on this exact same site in the late 70s and early 80s. On the walls, photographs and videos tell the tales of those who took part and set the scene for what is to come.
I then board a time capsule (a ride in moving cars) and am transported back to AD 960 for a tour of this famous Viking settlement. The tour is longer than ever before and what I can see is now complemented by touchscreen displays which provide narration in 14 different languages. Live actors rub shoulders with newly created animatronic characters and animals, showing domestic scenes from a Viking camp. The sounds and trademark Jorvik smells are also vastly improved, it’s a truly captivating experience. As I exit my ride, I’m brought back to the present and able to explore some of the actual artefacts that were discovered on this very spot. The third gallery is now open plan and key finds are dotted everywhere I look.
My favourite is a magnificently preserved sock, but it is the combs, coins and a fossilised poo that seem to get most people around me talking.
The skeletons are another highlight, with modern technology now able to yield far more information from them than ever before. From one female’s skeleton for instance, experts have been able to determine her age, height and where she came from and even the ailments she suffered at the time of her death. I can glimpse her on the ride (she’s been reconstructed) before I survey her bones up close.
Before I leave I chat to costumed interpreters who answer my questions, provide demonstrations and allow me to touch replica items, like bowls, spears and helmets. If adults enjoy it this much, it must blow children’s minds today. “It’s been a real eye-opener for our girls,” says Emma Hudson, mother of Esme Kate (seven) and Macee Beau (four) who’ve just finished their visit.
“They were asking questions all the way through the tour and couldn’t believe the artefacts at the end were real.
“They were fascinated by the fossilised poo but the skeletons were definitely their favourite. They were mesmerised when a Viking taught them how to make coins too. I know we’ll have to come back.” I can vouch for that, having been one of the thousands of school children to visit the centre since its original opening in 1984. “Children get so much out of it,” adds Sarah Maltby. “But don’t forget everything we do here is based on extensive scientific research and if people want a purely academic experience, they can get that too.”
Liv Tyler, Damian Lewis and Dame Judy Dench are some of the stars that have done just that, so book your visit soon, you never know who you’ll bump into. Now, where can I buy that do-it-yourself scratch and sniff postcard again?
This article was taken from This is Y 2018