IT IS easy to forget just what a sensation the Jorvik Viking Centre was when it opened almost 40 years ago.

We’ve become so used to the idea of York as the‘Viking city’, and to the regular sight of visitors queuing at Coppergate for their tour of the underground museum. But back then, it was all startlingly new.

The world’s media had been allowed privileged access ten days before the new museum was due to open on April 14, 1984.

More than 200 journalists turned up from all over the world, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

York Press: Prince Charles, seated beside Peter Addyman in one of the famous time cars, at the official opening of the Jorvik Viking Centre in 1984Prince Charles, seated beside Peter Addyman in one of the famous time cars, at the official opening of the Jorvik Viking Centre in 1984 (Image: Supplied)

And the reports they wrote about the recreated, underground Viking ‘city’ created an explosion of interest.

“Uncannily life-like figures bargain, argue, sing and gossip in the market place and sit in the homes and workshops exhaustively copied from the remains of the originals,” wrote one, Ian Cundall of the Evening Press’s sister newspaper The Northern Echo.

“It even smells realistic – rotting rubbish putrifies in the gutter, the fragrance of wood smoke fills the air and the fishmonger’s stock of herring and eel gives of its unmistakeable aroma.”

The new museum, with its soon-to-be-famous ‘time cars’, was different to anything seen before. So small wonder that when it opened there were huge queues – at one point a line up to 100 yards long snaked around the ‘new’ Coppergate shopping centre.

York Press: Long queues formed for the opening of JorvikLong queues formed for the opening of Jorvik (Image: Stock)

The reaction of those who’d been inside was ecstatic. “Truly marvellous”, said one visitor, emerging blinking into the daylight. “Even better than expected,” said another.

The new museum’s official opening, by Prince Charles, came a month later, on May 17. ‘The Viking Prince’, read the headline in the Evening Press.

As its fame spread, the phenomenal levels of early interest in the new museum showed no signs of abating. In its early years, Jorvik was attracting about a million visitors every year.

York Press: One of the main attractions of the viking centre was its lifelike figures and recreations of everyday scenes - such as the famous ‘Viking on the toilet’One of the main attractions of the viking centre was its lifelike figures and recreations of everyday scenes - such as the famous ‘Viking on the toilet’ (Image: Frank Dwyer)

And it set new standards of museum design: one that in the decades since has been imitated by museums all round the world. Interviewed 10 years ago on the museum’s 30th anniversary, director of attractions Sarah Maltby said: “People still come to us and ask us about what we do to this day.”

So how did a comparatively small city like York ever get to have such a ground-breaking museum?

We told the story of the Coppergate Dig, and of how it became a tourist attraction in its own right, last week.

The dig’s fame was greatly helped by a broadcast made by the Icelandic (and hence Viking) television presenter Magnus Magnusson.

It was further boosted thanks to the input of Lancashire entrepreneur and archaeology enthusiast Ian Skipper, who kept suggesting ways to make it more commercial and hence turn it into a moneyspinner for the fledgling York Archaeological Trust.

It was Mr Skipper who suggested selling the thousands of oyster shells that had been uncovered – the remains of Viking meals – as mementoes at £1.00 a pop.

And it was Mr Skipper who, when the dig began to draw to a close, suggested there should be a permanent attraction to take its place.

The idea for an underground Viking city in a basement beneath the new shopping centre was born. Mr Skipper apparently even helped persuade his bank to put up the loan to make the £2.6 million museum possible.

Then what was needed was someone to translate the ideas into a workable museum – one that would change forever the way archaeologists presented their work.

Step forward TV illustrator and designer John Sunderland.

He had no experience of museum design. But more than 20 year earlier, as a Wakefield schoolboy with a penchant for playing truant during maths lessons, he had had a vision.

York Press: Jorvik's pioneering designer John SunderlandJorvik's pioneering designer John Sunderland (Image: Supplied)

The 11-year-old would regularly slope away during maths classes to spend his time at the local cinema, or else mooching round the Wakefield museum. And one day he found himself thinking: ‘why can’t museums be more like films?’

Twenty years later, he read about the York Archaeological Trust’s plans for an underground Viking city, and that old vision came back to him.

He worked out some ideas on paper and ‘pitched’ them to the Archaeological Trust.

His vision was to present the Viking city to visitors almost as though they were in a feature film. “My idea was to have people sitting in the time cars, so that as they went around people would be like the camera,” he told The Press in an interview several years ago.

The archaeological trust interviewed several designers and architects: but for then director Dr Peter Addyman, John Sunderland was the one who stood out.

“I said to Ian Skipper, ‘this chap has got it,’” he told The Press in an interview for Jorvik’s 30th anniversary.

“He had this crazy, mad idea of making the museum into a film set, and taking people into the film. But we were looking for something completely different, and this chap was different!”

It proved to be a brave but groundbreaking decision. “Because he turned out to be a genius!” Dr Addyman said.

Years later, Mr Sunderland wrote a book - On My Way To Jorvik, published by CreateSpace – which described how he and a hand-picked team designed the museum. It remains perhaps the definitive account of the making of Jorvik.