Interview by Lilia Yumagulova; Story by Jonathon Reynolds

Summary: A cultural centre takes a devastating blow, but bounces back better, under effective leadership and innovative thinking. Read on to learn how the Jorvik Viking Centre not only reopened in just 16 months after a flood, but it was completely rebuilt, renovated, and reimagined in a better way.

Viking Children – Pre-Flood

The Jorvik Viking Centre is an experience which takes you back in time to a Viking village, a village which was on this exact place on the banks of the Foss River in York, England a thousand years ago. There are homes, people, animals, talking, movement and stories all experienced while travelling through the village. There is even a Viking ship – not a warship but more of a fishing or merchant ship. Looking at the ship which seems to appear from the walls, you realize that you are seeing all this from within a concrete ship. Since the whole experience is below the water level of the nearby Foss River, the walls, floors, and doors are all waterproof and flood-proofed. But they were not always.

The flood

On Dec 27, 2015, Sarah Maltby, Director of Attractions for the York Archaeological Trust, received a phone call that would change her Christmas holidays, as well as the next 16 months for her and every other employee at the Jorvik Viking Centre. The River Foss had overflowed and flooded out the Jorvik Viking Centre.

With up to nine metres of archaeology layers in York, there is a rich history to be shared with the public at the Jorvik Viking Centre. Not just a museum, the Jorvik Viking Centre is an experience where a Viking village has been recreated where it was centuries ago. In order to build the centre in this way, it was necessary to build it below the level of the River Foss – a river which rarely floods.

Viking Children – Post-Flood

By the end of the day on December 28, there was up to a metre of water through the entire exhibit floor. Due to fast thinking and action on part of the team at Jorvik, the artifacts were fortunately saved and moved out on December 27 and very quickly the question became ‘what now?’

Despite this devastation, the Jorvik Viking Centre kept every staff member on the payroll and working for the entire time the museum was closed and had three smaller exhibits around York throughout that period of time. The Jorvik Viking Centre not only reopened in just 16 months, but it was completely rebuilt, renovated, and reimagined in a better way – with an improved experience for both the public and the staff. Sarah described how all of this was accomplished in the 16 months after the flood to Lily Yumagulova, Editor of HazNet.

The next 16 months: Building back better

Sarah said the first point was having good insurance – and moreso insurers they could talk to and convince that the exhibition needed to be completely rebuilt – not just the same, but truly a real case of build back better. They also had insurance to keep the staff working and she said perhaps most important they had lots of friends and partners in York. Other attractions and organizations in York helped out with locations for temporary exhibits where Jorvik could stay in front of the public. Having local connections, working with local insurance representatives, and being able to work with the same company that built the original exhibitions was very important. Having the ability to design, build, negotiate, and carry on with business in new locations and fundraise all at the same time was made easier by having full staff being paid, having a great volunteer network and by being more locally based for all of these activities.

Building Back Better

Of course, the insurance would only cover the cost of what was there before so they had to raise money to cover the difference – £1.5 million of difference. The fund-raising campaign was named #CampaignCanute after a “fierce warrior” Viking king, who ascended the throne 1000 years ago, the year the flood hit. “Whilst we could simply replicate the pre-flood displays, our mission to educate in an accessible way drives us to plan how we can do it even better than before – and to do this, we will need to raise a significant sum of money,” said chief executive, David Jennings in a media interview.

Unanticipated challenges

When asked about the unanticipated challenges, Sarah responded, “I suppose one of the big challenges was getting the building watertight in the first place and then actually installing systems that would enable us to get insurance again because, you know, we had to mitigate against any future flooding…our insurance paid out a lot of money and they didn’t want to be in that position again. One of the opportunities was that we totally redid our galleries and in doing so we specified very high spec cases which allows us to bring in collections from other museums.”

Based on this, Sarah recommends “Getting decent insurance! Be prepared to argue your corner because insurers will only pay out what the minimum is if you don’t ask for it. We made our case. We made a strong case. And it was important to get people onside very early, you know people in the city, we got in touch with them, they got in touch with us and we replied several times so we established a very firmwide partnership base very early on because we were friends in the city. I always advocate working with other people because you never know when you are going to need them.”

A happy outcome

The ability of the Jorvik Viking Centre to come back from such a devastating flood in just 16 months, to come back bigger and better, and to do so without losing any employees and to raise a huge amount of money in that same time period is truly a testament to the organization, the preparedness, and the commitment of the entire York Archaeological Trust.

Want to learn more? Listen to the complete interview with Sarah Maltby on the HazNet website.


Jonathon Reynolds is an internationally published author who runs a foundation focused on sustainability and education.