“Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga” Exhibit Announcement
Remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
April 8, 1999
Thank you very much. Thank you, Madam Secretary [Connie Newman, Under Secretary of the Smithsonian] for your kind introduction. And I want to thank you and Director [Robert] Fri and the entire Smithsonian family for all that you do day in and day out to honor the past and imagine the future. Certainly we are gathered here today for a very special announcement, but it is one of the many ways that the Smithsonian is a true treasure here in the United States.
I want to thank also the Nordic Council of Ministers, which has played such a vital role in promoting this exhibit. And I particularly want to thank Volvo. I'm very grateful for the extraordinary act of corporate philanthropy, Mr. [Hans-Olov] Olsson [President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America], that has made this exhibition possible. And I'm delighted to see that the ambassadors from the Nordic countries could join us today. Because they are an integral part in representing the present Nordic culture here in the United States, and we are always pleased to be with them.
I am personally very excited about this announcement. I feel that it is something that is long overdue -- that the kind of information and the excitement that will be conveyed to the visitors who will see this exhibition both here and in the other cities to which it will travel, will further the understanding and the contributions of the Nordic culture. So I am delighted to be part of this announcement. But I am particularly pleased because of the way that it fits into the White House Millennium Council's celebration and commemoration of this point in our history.
When the President and I created the Council, we knew we wanted to mark this special occasion. Now honestly, we knew that the century would turn and the millennium would come whether we did anything or not about it. But we thought that it was too good an opportunity to miss. Because we knew that there would be a lot of attention to this historic passage. And we knew there would be many products that perhaps would be produced and marketed, from millennium toothpaste to whatever you can imagine.
But we also knew that this was not just a moment to watch a ball drop down or to see in the New Year, but to really take stock of who we are and where we come from and what we hope and want for the future. This unique moment in history gives us an opportunity not just for a celebration but for a conversation about history and science, culture and art, and the common values that bind us together as human beings. And that is particularly true for the United States -- a nation that owes so much to so many cultures, and one which every day celebrates the diversity that makes us a unique and very special place.
Our theme for the millennium is to honor the past, imagine the future. And that is what we have been trying to do with the emphases we have placed on having Americans look back at our history and having us appreciate more about how we became the America we are today. And that is certainly what this exhibition will help us to do. We will turn our attention to events that took place around 1,000 years ago when two vastly different people met for the first time on the shores of North America.
As we heard from Director Fri in his opening remarks, this exhibit will not only shed light on the Nordic story of discovery which has sparked the imaginations of people everywhere for so many years. It will also give us new insights into the relationships between the Vikings and the Native Americans who inhabited these shores.
I think it is also important that so many American citizens take pride in their Nordic roots. And they will want to learn more about their own history and feel part of that common heritage that so many Northern Europeans have contributed to building here in the United States. I very much appreciate and honor all the Nordic Council countries for their efforts to tell their millennium story to the world. As I have learned about the activities that each country will be hosting, I can see that they are doing everything from creating community projects to sponsoring literary and historical exhibitions, and even designating millennium cities as centers of cultural celebrations. And they have certainly inspired the rest of us.
When the Millennium Council began its work, and the people who were attempting to describe to the President -- particularly the director, Ellen Lovell, who is here with us -- what was happening around the world, the Internet brought news of many exciting activities that were planned in the Nordic countries. And we wanted to be a partner with what was already happening in those countries. That is the kind of partnership that we are acknowledging today -- bringing together the White House Millennium Council, the Nordic countries, and the Smithsonian in a joint effort to share the remarkable story of the Vikings.
It is a saga, though, not only about the past, but about what we can continue to learn from it and be enriched by it. As we commemorate the courage of these seafaring pioneers, we can honor the spirit of exploration that has fueled the progress of the Nordic countries and the United States. And as we focus through the long lens of history, we can discover other common traditions that we will want to continue to carry forward with us into the new millennium.
I've been interested to learn, for example, that within Viking society, women had a good deal of freedom to engage in trade and to become active participants in the political lives of their communities. And we've also been learning about the way that the Viking explorers sought to preserve their history and accomplishments through new and beautiful forms of sagas, a new form of literature that took root at that time.
We've also learned something about how to be mindful of our interaction with our environment. No one knows, as I am told, exactly what caused the Norse settlers to die out in Greenland, for example, but we believe that environmental factors played a role. That should be a very sobering reminder of how each of us in our time must do our part to protect and preserve our fragile environmental resources going into the next century.
This exhibit will speak to us in many different ways. I was very privileged, when I was last in Dublin, to go to the museum there to see many of the Viking artifacts that were available. And I learned that perhaps some of them will be part of this exhibition when it opens next April.
But it's important to take this time and really contemplate our duty to the past, if indeed we mean to honor it. And that means preservation and restoration efforts like this exhibit. If we don't preserve what we know of our past, if we don't continue to try to discover that past, we will lose countless treasures and a lot of information that perhaps could tell us about who we are and where we came from. Now we are not by any means a very old civilization here in the United States, but we are learning about the duty of preservation as well. In the last year I have been very pleased to see an increased attention paid to preservation and restoration -- whether it is the Star-Spangled Banner here in the Smithsonian or the prehistoric dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. And this Vikings exhibition will remind us that there are places on our own shores where you can see remnants of Viking exploration and settlement. And if you have ever been to Martha's Vineyard, you may have seen them.
So I want to thank and commend everyone associated with this exhibition -- the historians and archeologists, the environmental scientists and researchers, the sponsors and patrons -- because you are going to give us a lot more information than is generally well known in America today about who the Vikings were and what they did and the contributions they made.
We've also been holding Millennium evenings at the White House, as we look back and look forward. And in preparation for thinking about the programs that we would hold, we have all been trying to learn more about what was going on in the world 1,000 years ago. And anyone who has a stereotyped view of what the Vikings were -- probably from old movies that we saw -- would be surprised to learn, as some of us were, about the many contributions that those seafarers were making and how far flung their adventures were.
Viking explorers got as far as Afghanistan and brought back all kinds of treasures, including lapis and other minerals and stones, to trade. Their fleets got to what was then the precursor of Istanbul and were in the straits there. They traveled far and wide, and with them brought their own ideas and their own experiences. But because they were such restless explorers, they were among the earliest conveyors of information and experience and culture from one part of the known world to another. If you imagine in your mind's eye -- as the logo attempts to stylize a Viking ship -- in a way it was the Internet of the year 1,000, connecting peoples and places who themselves could not even imagine what lay beyond that wide sea or that mountain range.
Our children and grandchildren will only learn about the courage and ingenuity of these explorers who came to our shores 1,000 years ago but touched so many other shores as well, if we are prepared to help them learn. And they will discover, through these stories perhaps, something about what happened in faraway places. And they will hear about adventures and they will learn about the sagas. But perhaps, just perhaps, some young person will have his or her own spirit sparked. Because after all, what the Vikings will really be conveying to us over all these centuries is the power of the human spirit and the universal longing to find and cross new horizons.
None of us owns our history. We are each its caretakers. And we each have a responsibility to pass it on, but also to pass it on as honestly as we can. I look forward to the opening of this exhibition, this time in April next year. And I look forward to hearing about the excited reactions of people who come with the purpose of seeing the exhibition, but also about the countless people who stream through the doors of the Smithsonian who will chance upon this exhibition about Vikings and come away just amazed by what they have learned. And by so learning, will feel a closer connection to our friends in the Nordic countries and a closer connection back through time. And maybe with that new knowledge, will themselves think about some new seas they wish to navigate.
Thank you very much.