Cynthia Sharpe steers us to Denmark's Viking Ship Museum.][Editor's note: Each Wednesday, Theme Park Insider invites a leading themed entertainment professional to take over the page and share one of their favorite attractions around the world. I have asked them to go "off the beaten path," if you will, and highlight an attraction outside the familiar favorites at places such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. I also have asked participants to stay clear of their own company's work. Today, Thinkwell Group Principal
Shawn is a tough act to follow, and I’m kind of miffed that he shared the City Museum with you before I could.
Like Shawn, I’m privileged to have traveled the world for work and been able to experience amazing places. But by far, the best experiences have been those I’ve shared with loved ones, particularly my kid. From dorky roadside attractions (Mars Cheese Castle!) to fearing for the father-child relationship on the bumper cars at PortAventura, seeing the world through their eyes has been a delight and an education. The best of all: sharing the absolute, I’m sorry you’re allowed to do what, experience of rowing out onto the open water in a meticulously recreated longboat at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.
Sometime around 960, King Harald "Bluetooth" named Roskilde the capital of Denmark. Not long after, Vikings purposefully scuttled five ships at the narrowest point of the adjacent fjord to create a defensive barrier. A thousand years later, these ships were excavated, then put on display in a museum built at the edge of the water, in 1969. The Skuldelev ships are the centerpiece of the main building, their forms silhouetted against huge windows overlooking the fjord. It’s dramatic, arresting, and not even the coolest part of the place.
In the late 1990s, plans took shape to build a shipyard adjacent to the museum, where researchers could test out construction techniques and a more hands-on experience would complement the existing space. In possibly both the best and the worst capital project curveball ever, construction revealed another nine historic ships. Collectively, the ships upended our understanding of how Vikings lived, traded, and traveled (spoiler: it wasn’t all raids and bloodshed). Today, the experience consists of the traditional museum, the hands-on shipyard and demonstration area, and the docks teeming with the fruits of their experimental marine archaeology program.
The shipyard itself is everything we dream of immersive lands in theme parks being. There are skilled artisans, ‘demonstrating’ their crafts as they actually work to build full-sized, recreated ships. The smell of freshly-hewn logs and the clang of hammer and anvil fill the air. There are tons of simple, hands-on activities. A capstone experience gives guests the chance to put all their knowledge together and build a model boat of their own design, using found, salvaged, and recycled materials. It’s brilliantly designed and incredibly accessible. Instructions are in graphical format and touchable examples are available. Stations are designed at a variety of heights. Craftspeople smoothly describe what they’re doing, switching between Danish and English, painting a vivid picture with words. Facilitators are trained to be helpful without being overbearing, seamlessly acting as another pair of hands for a guest with a fine motor disability or a frustrated four-year-old without making either feel singled out. They’re simply there to help everyone.
May to September is when the place truly shines. Not only is that when the recreation work is in full swing, but summer also heralds the ultimate ‘hands-on’ immersive experience. For a nominal fee, you too can take your spot aboard a Viking longship, and row out onto the waters. And it’s accessible: the boats are designed to accommodate several guests who, for whatever reason, cannot row. I love Smuggler’s Run, but this is actual collaboration with very real implications. I can easily summon up the memory of sore muscles as we fought shifting winds, and the sense of awe as we bobbed on the water, looking back to the shore of Roskilde, and thought of what it must have been like to sail one of these ships hundreds of kilometers.
We trade in simulacra in this business, chocolate scent pumped out of retail and snow-capped mountains ‘looming’ above us. The Viking Ship Museum is, in a way, no different. The ships the artisans craft? Recreations. But they do it brilliantly, seamlessly, the magic resting in those in-between places where simulation allows us to experience the real in a whole new way. Salt air. The blinding glint of sun on water. The smell of the weather changing. The smoothness of worn oar-handles. The giddy sense of accomplishment on my child’s face.
As an experience designer, the Viking Ship Museum challenges and stretches me – how to engage a contested history and create new understanding, what to consider as ‘doable’ in a museum setting, how to be radically inclusive. As a guest, the museum transformed me, the memories percolating up with every pop-culture reference to when Vikings ruled the waters. Now, as the specter of Covid begins to recede, they are restarting their sailings. I dream of the feeling of the Danish sun on my face, the wind whipping my hair, the sound of a blacksmith’s song in the far distance, sitting alongside my husband and now-adult child, and sailing on the fjord again.
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If you work in the themed entertainment design industry and would like to share a favorite attraction with Theme Park Insider readers, please email editor Robert Niles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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