Have you managed to book tickets to the Viking exhibition at the British Museum yet? If you haven’t, my advice is: don’t bother. I know what the critics have been saying: that it’s an unmissable treat. But it’s only an unmissable treat if you visit under the privileged conditions of a previewing journalist. Go as an ordinary punter on the other hand — as the Delingpole family discovered to their cost last week — and you’ll find it about as much fun as being pillaged, raped and having your ribcage torn open to form a ‘spread eagle’.
Well, maybe not quite that bad. But definitely bad enough to make you want to queue up and demand a refund.
Normally when I go and complain about this sort of thing — which does give me great pleasure, I must say — my kids go into paroxysms of embarrassment and beg me not to do it. On this occasion, however, they too felt the disappointment so keenly that they were actually egging me on.
We had, after all, come all the way up from the sticks for our special day of culture in Town. And having missed the Pompeii one, we were really rather looking forward to catching up with the latest blockbuster. So we arrived bang on time to catch our 3.10 p.m. entry slot. Only to find ourselves — Hwaet! — in a room so rammed with gawpers that it was scarcely possible to move, let alone get within viewing distance of the display cases.
Now I’ve been to must-see blockbuster shows before, of course — at the Royal Academy, at the National Gallery and so on. You accept a certain crowding as part of the deal: the organisers naturally want these events to be seen by as wide an audience as possible — and, probably, if it were more exclusive it would be twice as expensive. This one, though, was mobbed beyond redemption.
All right, so by the time you got to the final room — the one with the vast frame of a long boat, containing, ooh, at least five little bits of original timber — there was a bit more space to breathe, even to examine some of the cases more closely (like the weird ‘killed’ swords which accompanied dead warriors in the afterlife). By then, though, it was already far too late. We’d come seeking Valhalla. But ended up in Hel.
The museum staff when I complained couldn’t have been more sympathetic. They’d been hearing much of this sort of thing, ever since the show opened. Apparently there has been some frightful cock-up with the booking process in which far too many tickets have been allocated to each viewing slot. At least I hope it’s a cock-up. If it was deliberate — if some bean-counting cheese-parer actually decided to let in so many people in the spirit of inclusivity, or revenue-maximisation — then I have to say that even spread-eagling is too good for him.
Still, there was one weird, happy side effect to all this. Boy, who is now an avid Spectator reader, will kill me for saying this (‘Dad, when you put words into my mouth in your articles you always make me sound like such a child!’) but I’m afraid I can’t resist, for I know it will give so many fellow parents pleasure: all that culture you try to inflict on their reluctant early years — it does pay off in the end, you know.
For lo!, guess what totally amazing, indeed almost incredible thing happened after we’d got our refund. Yep — instead of wanting to exit the place immediately for an ice cream, both Boy, 15, and Girl, 13, actually clamoured to see more exhibits.
‘Dad, we’ve got to go and see the Rosetta Stone!’ said Boy. ‘I’m not leaving till we’ve seen the mummies,’ said Girl. But it wasn’t just the obvious stuff that demanded their attention. They even enthused about things no one child normally cares about, such as the Assyrian lions and bas-reliefs. And when we’d done with the mummies (‘Excuse me. My daughter is keen to see a desiccated corpse with its bandages off. Is there one?’ ‘Just over there, sir! And on the floor below we’ve got two heads in jars’), we went in search of Roman coins and Celtic coins, pausing to examine the helmet from Sutton Hoo, and that extraordinarily beautiful glass cup, and some Etruscan jewellery and some Greek helmets and on and on and on…
This isn’t to boast how civilised and incredibly highbrow my brace of teenagers are — because they’re not. Rather, I want to give hope to all those mums and dads (and grandparents) out there who’ve spent this holiday and last holiday and the holiday before that dragging bored, ungrateful, uninterested kids from museum to gallery, wondering whether it was worth the hassle.
It is worth the hassle, just so long as you realise that culturally brainwashing your offspring is a long-term investment. At first — and the same rule applies of course to country walks, which for years you have to refer to using euphemisms like ‘an adventure’ or ‘a sweetie hunt’ — they’ll respond rather as Damien does in The Omen II when he’s taken near a church. But there’ll come a day — and you won’t know where and you won’t know when — when suddenly it clicks and instead of abhorring all those wonders of the ancient world, all those great works of art you’re so keen for them to see, they’ll respond with as much enthusiasm and joy and attention to detail as you do.
So I’d just like to say a heartfelt thanks to the organisers of the Viking exhibition. You messed up big time. But you also gave the Fawn and me one of the most precious afternoons in our life as parents.
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