The JORVIK Viking Centre presents the Viking history of York, a city in northern England that was conquered by the Great Heathen Army and ruled by the Norse for close to a hundred years. 

The museum has enjoyed more than 20 million visitors since opening its doors in 1984 and helped pioneer the idea of interactive historical storytelling throughout the UK and beyond. 

With the 40th anniversary of the opening of JORVIK coming up on April 14, we look back on some of the highlights of the past four decades. 

We also speak to Jay Commins, a communications specialist at York Archaeology, about the center's plans for celebrating the landmark year.

1972-1981: Archeological excavations 

JORVIK's story begins 12 years before the opening of the museum when an archeological dig in the center of town uncovers up to nine meters of soil that is full of historical treasures. 

Many of the layers identified date to the Viking Age. The moist, peaty soil means that the artifacts that emerge are unusually well-preserved. 

Over the next nine years, archeologists discover around 40,000 items of interest in a series of digs around York. The finds include leather shoes, textiles, timbers from buildings, plants, and animal bones. 

The most fruitful area is situated on a huge redevelopment site for a shopping center at Coppergate. 

The excavations provide archeologists and historians with unprecedented insight into the everyday lives of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons of the era. 

Sutherland and the JORVIK team sought to innovate museum exhibitions, preferring immersive, interactive environments resembling film sets rather than traditional static displays laden with text. Photo: JORVIK Viking Centre

1981-1984: Planning the future 

With the excavations completed, the York Archeological Trust is tasked with identifying the best way to showcase some of the thousands of artifacts to the general public. 

As The Viking Herald detailed in our exploration of his work on the project, the cartoonist, filmmaker, and designer John Sutherland develops a revolutionary concept for the new museum to be built at Coppergate. 

Sutherland and the JORVIK team are eager to move beyond the idea of a traditional exhibition with lifeless exhibits and dry texts.

Instead, their plan is to construct something truly interactive with a living historical recreation that will bear closer resemblance to a film set than a museum. 

Upon its grand opening in 1984, JORVIK became an instant hit, immersing visitors in a vivid recreation of Viking society complete with the sights, sounds, and even smells of the era. Photo: JORVIK Viking Centre

1984: JORVIK opens to the public 

The JORVIK Viking Centre opens its gates on April 14, 1984. Rather than the typical focus on Viking warfare, the creators seek to show the cultural and industrious side of the Norse by presenting the stalls and workshops of bone carvers, wood turners, jewelers, and leather workers.

Enthusiastic visitors ride on specially designed time-cars through a historically reenacted village that displays the sights, sounds, and even smells of the Viking Age. 

1985: The first JORVIK Viking Festival 

In part as a marketing ploy for the museum, the first-ever JORVIK Viking Festival is held in February. The event is a roaring success, attracting thousands of visitors to York in the middle of the cold Yorkshire winter to enjoy torchlit processions, battle reenactments, and educational activities.

Today, the festival enjoys 45,000 visitors every year, and has helped shape the Viking reenactment scene in the United Kingdom. 

Since its first exhibition, the museum has stood out by showcasing the various aspects of Norse life, emphasizing the resourcefulness of artisans and merchants, departing from the usual emphasis on Viking warfare. Photo: JORVIK Viking Centre

2001: JORVIK gets an update 

In 2001, the museum receives an update that includes new six-seater time capsules and animatronic Vikings. The revamp provides a more extensive picture of Viking Age York, as well as details of the original archeological excavations.

A new artifacts gallery also presents more than 800 objects found during the dig. In 2006, holographic Viking ghosts are added to provide extra context to the historical objects.

2017-2021: Trials and tribulations 

In 2015, JORVIK is devastated by a post-Christmas flood, and the museum is forced to close for more than a year for repairs. In the meantime, the artifacts are displayed in three locations across the city in the JORVIK on Tour exhibitions.

Though the center reopens in 2017, just like most other attractions in the UK, it suffers another period of closure just three years later due to the restrictions imposed during the Covid pandemic. 

2022: The 20 millionth visitor arrives 

The museum enjoys a huge landmark in 2022, when the 20 millionth visitor arrives in York. The Logie family from Edinburgh are greeted by a horde of Vikings and presented with a replica Viking key that provides them free lifetime visits to JORVIK. 

In 2001, JORVIK introduced new features such as six-seater time capsules and animatronic Vikings while also establishing a new artifacts gallery, with additional enhancements in 2006. Photo: JORVIK Viking Centre

A true original 

Over the course of its history, the JORVIK Viking Centre has won a string of awards and helped pioneer a concept of immersive, interactive museums that has now become popular around the world.

"JORVIK was the first immersive museum in England where you really relived what people were doing," Jay points out. 

The introduction of smells reminiscent of Viking Age York was particularly innovative: "The organizers worked with a company that made smells for the catering industry," Jay says.

"They were making ambiances for hotels, and then suddenly we were asking them to create the aromas of cesspits and other unpleasant things. Today, of course, it's common for museums with interactive spaces to use smells in their exhibitions." 

Members of the original JORVIK team have also gone on to work on a number of other popular attractions, such as Chocolate Story in York, Oxford Castle, and The Real Mary King's Close in Edinburgh. They have also inspired countless others.

"The number of attractions that have spawned out of JORVIK and the teams that created JORVIK has been phenomenal," Jay tells us. "The influence from JORVIK has just spread and spread." 

2022 marked a significant milestone for the museum as it welcomed the Logie family from Edinburgh as its 20 millionth visitor, presenting them with a replica Viking key for lifetime admission to JORVIK. Photo: JORVIK Viking Centre

Marking the occasion 

To mark the center's 40th birthday, the people at JORVIK and York Archeology have been gathering information and oral histories of the people who were involved at the foundation of the center.

"We would like a full record of what happened in the words of the people who were there and saw history being made," Jay tells us. "This is where York Archeology has come full circle. The history of the archeology in York and the attraction has become part of the story itself."

Jay admits, however, that there are only modest plans to mark the official day of opening. "It's a quiet time of the year, just after the Easter holidays. We see it as an anniversary year, rather than just a date. We'll definitely be having a birthday cake, but the start will be fairly low-key."

"We have got some plans for later in the year, but they're top secret at the moment! I can tell you, however, that the really big party will be in February 2025 for the 40th anniversary of the Viking festival."

The JORVIK Viking Centre, 19 Coppergate, York YO1 9WT, UK. Open daily, 10 am-5 pm. 

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