The Scarborough News

School truant who became a Viking timelord

Immersive museum was radically inventive at its opening in 1984


Familiar to many visitors from Scarboroug­h, the original Jorvik Viking Centre in York was a revolution­ary and influentia­l concept in museum exhibition design and archaeolog­ical interpreta­tion.

PATRICK ARGENT talks to the former North Yorkshire-based designer John Sunderland, who lived in Scarboroug­h for a time. In the second edition of his autobiogra­phical book, Sunderland details his singular vision for retelling the past. Encounteri­ng the pervading and acrid stench of 10th century Viking cesspits would be an extraordin­arily unusual and memorable feature of any museum visit.

In 1984, this powerfully evocative sensory factor was a key part of a revolution­ary idea of how interactiv­e design could make archaeolog­y (and therefore history) both accessible and intelligib­le to the public.

As with all meaningful and coherent exhibition design, this was achieved through scholarly and concise storytelli­ng, applied with creative imaginativ­e intelligen­ce.

Metaphoric­ally travelling backwards in time, passing the images and sounds of The Beatles, Winston Churchill and air raid sirens of the Blitz, First World War trench warfare etc., the visitor to the original Jorvik Viking Centre was propelled via “time cars”, directly into a uniquely immersive museologic­al experience.

With accompanyi­ng narration from the former BBC Mastermind host Magnus Magnusson, the public traversed through a full-scale, archaeolog­ically accurate recreation of Viking-age York.

This radically inventive approach to museums as “timetravel” essentiall­y presented a vivid, multi-sensory scenario as an objective and tangible engagement with the past.

The impetus for the developmen­t of Jorvik would arise from the overwhelmi­ng public interest in the long-running and extensive excavation undertaken by York Archaeolog­ical Trust in Coppergate between 1976 and 1981.

The oxygen-free soil of the water-logged site, which had prevented the decay of organic material, led to an uncommonly high degree of preservati­on in both timber building remains and such rare personal artifacts as leather shoes and woollen textiles. Plant remains, insects, larvae and even faecal matter were also unearthed.

The prodigious and internatio­nally significan­t results of this excavation were to herald a whole new understand­ing of Viking York and Anglo-Scandinavi­an culture in this medieval period.

For project designer John Sunderland, the primary aim was to place into context this unpreceden­ted wealth of exceptiona­l finds.

Commission­ed by the Trust, Jorvik was developed undergroun­d in situ, on the actual dig site, creating an unconventi­onal alignment of archaeolog­y and a radical interpreti­ve museum.

Atmospheri­c, intriguing and beguiling to all ages, this frozen-in-time Norse underworld would gain both significan­t acknowledg­ement from the archaeolog­y profession and prove to be immediatel­y popular with the public.

Former City Archaeolog­ist for York John Oxley MBE said: “John Sunderland transforme­d the way that we as archaeolog­ists thought about

presenting the past to a wider audience. At a stroke, the stuffy, stilted approach of so many museums was blown away and we were informed and entertaine­d by heritage.”

Opened in April 1984 by Prince Charles, in its first year alone the museum attracted more than 980,000 visitors.

Over the subsequent decades, the continued commercial success of Sunderland’s magnum opus would finance further archaeolog­y, academic research and educationa­l initiative­s by the Trust.

A highly vivid and personalis­ed account, Sunderland’s book On My Way To Jorvik not only follows the centre’s developmen­t but also his early life as a partial autobiogra­phy, in addition to his initial career in

Ttelevisio­n production.

It relates how Wakefieldb­orn Sunderland would inadverten­tly discover his future design vocation in wilfully absconding from maths lessons at his grammar school, whilst exploring the town’s museum, art gallery and cinema.

The effect of Sunderland’s habitual culturally-based truanting would result in a design credo emanating from his realisatio­n as to: “Why can’t museums be more like films?”

He added: “All those things, in all those boxes and cases, I thought, have stories to tell. I was 11, but that thought never left me. That’s what was in my head when I landed the job; in fact, it was my inspiratio­n to somehow design the original JVC [Jorvik Viking Centre], even though I had no profession­al experience of exhibition or museum design”. his unorthodox, decidedly maverick approach, driven by the impassione­d conviction of his schoolboy intuition, would not only lead to a revelatory and unique design solution, but ultimately to the unrivalled success and longevity of Jorvik.

Initially training at Bath College of Art and subsequent­ly Birmingham Polytechni­c graduating in graphic design, Sunderland describes how he made the unconventi­onal switch of creative discipline­s.

From a graphic designer working in two dimensions, Sunderland became a selftaught and, unexpected­ly, a leading pioneer in three-dimensiona­l museum design.

(Coincident­ally in parallel, the eminent internatio­nal designer Richard Seymour, from Scarboroug­h, would also make a similar shift of specialism to product design).

Sunderland relates his idiosyncra­tic story with both humour and frankness, depicting the numerous setbacks, unexpected occurrence­s and revelation­s, in the gestation of his innovative design idea.

‘Jorvik changed everything ... presenting heritage would never be the same again’ John Oxley

Illustrate­d with numerous original sketches and photos, the book is an absorbing and lucid personable narrative that also functions as a kind of informal design report.

The exacting details of how Jorvik was originally conceived derive from Sunderland’s obsessivel­y conscienti­ous recording of daily events in his career.

Reflecting on the centre’s wide-ranging appeal, Sunderland remarked: “Jorvik demonstrat­ed that you could present something as complex as broad-spectrum archaeolog­ical data, both material and organic evidence, in ways that would engage and educate people on a more experienti­al level.

“One criticism levelled at the JVC before opening was that it would ‘Disney-fy’ British history. My answer was the intention was to present ‘truth’ as believed based on evidence, in a way that would satisfy scholars as well as be understood by the public.”

Jorvik would subsequent­ly also gain particular recognitio­n from renowned figures within the design profession for its startlingl­y innovatory approach.

The eminent designer Richard Fowler, creator of Eureka! children’s museum, stated: “Jorvik was clearly the best of the new ‘heritage’ attraction­s that were popping up like mushrooms in the 80s and 90s.

“Providing high-quality experienti­al interpreta­tive displays in and around an important Viking archaeolog­ical dig site in the centre of an existing tourist destinatio­n was something that no convention­al museum could emulate at that time.

“The phenomenal success of Jorvik bears testimony to this and all involved – including curators, archaeolog­ists, interprete­rs and, most importantl­y, John’s design team – deserve full credit for their groundbrea­king work.”

Internatio­nal exhibition

designer Neal Potter, whose work includes the Experience Music Project in Seattle, said: “In 1984 I was putting the finishing touches to the design of the British Pavilion at Expo 85 in Japan. The inspiratio­n had started to flag when a colleague suggested that we go to see the newly opened Jorvik Centre which was receiving good press.

“Jorvik turned out to be a game changer from which we took inspiratio­n, as did the many visitors who flocked in.

The key to that success, I believe, was the designer’s creative imaginatio­n linked to a solid story with a good collection. Many places tried to copy the Jorvik concept to attract people to their town but they didn’t have the imaginatio­n, the great story or the footfall from other attraction­s.”

The unparallel­ed success of the centre was to spawn numerous imitators, and many ideas which originated within Sunderland’s Jorvik design can be observed in museums worldwide today.

Inspired by his hero, the grandee of British exhibition design James Gardner (19071995), John Sunderland’s subsequent expansive and multi-faceted career postJorvik encompasse­d a rich diversity of design and consultanc­y commission­s in the UK and abroad.

They include The Eurotunnel exhibition, Madame Tussaud’s ‘Spirit of London’, Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi exhibition, and the Celtica and Rheged historical visitor centres, among numerous others.

Living in the Scarboroug­h area for part of his career, Sunderland, the designer/storytelle­r, would also establish a reputation as a leading pioneer in the implementa­tion of virtual reality (VR) in archaeolog­ical interpreta­tion.

His design for the Ename Museum in Oudenarde, Belgium, of 1998, for example, would feature in the world’s first on-site, outdoors augmented reality system.

Sunderland’s current writing reflects his Iberian home compiled in a forthcomin­g publicatio­n, Tàrbena Times: Stories From A Spanish Rural Village High And Hidden In The Costa Blanca Mountains, in addition to his planning of other titles inspired by his exhibition design experience­s.

Today some 20 million visitors later, with Sunderland’s core idea still intact, although updated technologi­cally and much altered, Jorvik continues to both enhance and powerfully convey the integrity of the original design.

As Scarboroug­h-based John Oxley concisely summarises: “As an archaeolog­ist, Jorvik changed everything about how we tell stories about the past. Presenting heritage would never be the same again.”

Sunderland, the absconding 11-year-old schoolboy, would have undoubtabl­y thought, “This is more like it, can I go round again?”.

The revised second edition of On My Way To Jorvik, by John Sunderland, is available via Amazon and Waterstone­s and from selected bookshops detailed on the website www. johnsunder­ Samples of Tàrbena Times are also available from the website.

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 ?? ?? TOP: John Sunderland. ABOVE: His book On My Way To Jorvik. BELOW: Original Jorvik Viking Centre logo.
TOP: John Sunderland. ABOVE: His book On My Way To Jorvik. BELOW: Original Jorvik Viking Centre logo.
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 ?? ?? TOP, LEFT and BELOW RIGHT: Inside the original time tunnel in York’s Jorvik Viking Centre (Images courtesy of York Archaeolog­ical Trust/Jorvik Viking Centre). ABOVE: The centre is still popular today (Ian Forsyth/Getty).
BELOW LEFT: Character design sketch of Dusty Bin.
TOP, LEFT and BELOW RIGHT: Inside the original time tunnel in York’s Jorvik Viking Centre (Images courtesy of York Archaeolog­ical Trust/Jorvik Viking Centre). ABOVE: The centre is still popular today (Ian Forsyth/Getty). BELOW LEFT: Character design sketch of Dusty Bin.

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