Viking heritage tourism

Recently I have been interested in academic research on living history and reenactment. I decided to turn it into a project – 1000words  – in which I read and summarise relevant academic articles in fewer than 1000 words.* Let’s give science a voice and let’s understand it.

*All you read here is my own exercise in interpretation of other people’s words. I will always encourage you to consult the original work.

Why do people like to see others acting as Vikings? What makes living history feel authentic to reenactors and visitors? These are the most interesting questions the paper “Viking Heritage Tourism. Authenticity and Commodification” by Chris Halewood and Kevin Hannam attempts to answer.

What makes heritage tourism grow?

The paper was produced in the early 2000s. The authors observe Viking heritage tourism in Europe as an up-and-coming leisure activity involving more and more actors such as museums, heritage centers, theme parks, village reconstructions, and seasonal trading fairs or markets supplemented by the activities of Viking reenactment or living history societies. After visiting and observing the activities at a number of Viking-related sites (the Jorvik Viking heritage center York, the United Kingdom, Foteviken Viking village, Sweden; Moesgaard Viking market, Denmark; Borre Viking market, Norway; Oslo Ships museum, Norway; Roskilde ship museum, Denmark; Hedeby museum, Germany; Viking Land theme park, Norway), the authors conclude that there are two primary reasons behind the development of heritage tourism and Viking tourism, in particular.

First of all, it is about romantic nostalgia for a world gone-by in which life was stable, predictable and rooted in locality. Diving into a living history realm provides both the visitor and reenactor the opportunity to escape from some common fears of today: uncertainty, fear of globalization and local identity loss. Contrary to the fast-paced modern urban living, Viking events evoke simple natural living in which small community and cooperation in everyday tasks are in the centre of attention. This seems very accurate – think of medieval outdoor cooking over an open-fire around which everyone gathers after dark. There is not much choice of food but it does not matter, people just love the experience: nature, smells, chats and laughter.

Cooking at Wolin Festival of Slavs and VIkings, photo by Camera Obscura

The second reason behind the popularity of heritage tourism is searching for a sense of reality and authenticity. Our ordinary everyday life is full with artifice, abstract tasks and duties that bring little satisfaction. Heritage tourism is a way to experience authenticity, or what we like to think is authentic as it evokes a feeling of “the good old days” when people led simpler lives, made things themselves, knew their neighbours. For example, visitors at reenactment events love to see the process of making things. They are more likely to buy a clay cup or a woven textile once they have the opportunity to see how it is made and talk to the maker. Personal interactions give the visitor a different connection with the item, enrich it with meanings, history, emotions, and memories. It’s just more human.

For reenactors or professionals in museums and living history sites authenticity is perhaps something quite different. To my mind, it is making and using things (clothes, tools etc.) according to the state-of-the-art academic sources, archeological finds and experimental archeology. Academic expertise, seen as careful and reliable, gives reenactors’ actions the ultimate “authenticity badge” in the their community.

Authenticity that is staged

Yet, searching for authenticity in reenactment is a paradox, isn’t it. From the market point of view, entry to “the Viking world” is a commodity to purchase. Why then does it feel authentic? Halewood and Hannam argue that, and I agree with them, this is because in living history events or in museum which hire reenactors, the aspect of labour is hidden. Reenactors at such sites are perceived as passionate volunteers that do their thing primarily for fun, not money (even if they are sometimes paid). This is what makes living history such an enticing experience and leisure time activity. Although it can be argued that many Viking sites and events are commercialised and commodified (and this isn’t necessarily bad), the enthusiasm of people behind them creates the rim of authenticity, passion, confidence and integrity which is so attractive to people who might rarely experience such feelings in their lives.

Viking Picnic in Warsaw, photo by Camera Obscura

Critical post-tourist

Naturally, authenticity is experienced on many levels and many tourists, as well as reeactors have a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of it. The authors of the paper talk about a postmodern idea of post-tourism – post-tourist knows that there is no authentic tourist experience, questions authenticity all together and is aware of the fact that a Viking market is a sort of theatre-like performance staged and adjusted to the needs and expectations of 21st century travellers.

Similarly, many reenactors share the view that there is no authentic Viking experience. They distance themselves to authenticity as a goal and perceive it as something negotiated and agreed upon in the living history community. Standards for authenticity in the Viking reenactment are constantly challenged and discussed in the reenactors coomunity. What was considered authentic enough 10 years ago might not meet the standards of today’s reenactment events. Think of machine sewn medieval garbs – they were good enough back in the days and now they are looked upon as inauthentic and hand stitching is preferred. The same is happening with historical tents made from cotton. Even though cotton wasn’t widely known in the Viking Age, cotton tents (durable, easy to impregnate and affordable) have been accepted in the reenactment world. Last year (2017) I already heard that some major Viking festivals are going to start linen-only policy with regards to tents. So indeed, there is no inherent value in an object, a dress or tunic – it is our judgment that makes it ‘viking’, ‘authentic’ or ‘period accurate’.

Institutional support for “Viking tourism”

The paper concludes that the growth of heritage tourism can be also attributed to EU cultural policies and generous funding for heritage tourism activities and services.  Have a look at “Follow the Vikings” project which aims at using Europe’s rich Viking heritage to “boost economies, help knowledge transfer and quality improvement at heritage sites, and maintain Europe as the No. 1 Global Heritage Tourism Destination.”

Halewood, Chris and Kevin Hannam. 2001. “Viking heritage tourism: Authenticity and Commodification,” Annals of Tourism Research 28(3), 565-580, DOI: 10.1016/S0160-7383(00)00076-1.

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