The Kon-Tiki Museum

Where Thor Heyerdahl meets the scientific community


Photo: Peter Szarner / Kon-Tiki Museet
Stern view of the Ra II papyrus raft at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.

Mukilteo, Wash.

I recently made my third visit to the Kon-Tiki Museum on Bygdøy in Oslo. The museum is a monument to the great explorer and ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl, and the Fram Museum, only a stone’s throw away, is a monument to the expeditions of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, two other famous Norwegian explorers. The purpose of my visit this time was to understand Heyerdahl better through my own scientific background.

I first visited the Kon-Tiki Museum when I was 8 years old. I could not closely read the displays that provided the background to the expedition then, but I certainly felt an aura of mystery, before I encountered the original Kon-Tiki raft. 

In 1947, Heyerdahl sailed the balsa wood Kon-Tiki from Peru to Tuamotu Island in Polynesia—nearly 5,000 miles—to demonstrate that South American Indians could have traveled across the Pacific as early as 500 B.C. Heyerdahl believed there were links between the cultures of Polynesia and the Incas in Peru.

Walking around the raft, I wondered about this man, who allowed a crew to sail 101 days across the Pacific without any support ships and against all advice, to demonstrate that such a crossing was possible. Clearly, Heyerdahl was very determined. This concept of “living the history” of an earlier culture in order to witness a similar experience is called experimental archeology. 

There’s a lot more to discover in the museum, because Heyerdahl had an insatiable curiosity and remarkable grit. On leaving the Kon-Tiki room, I encountered huge moai head replicas from Easter Island. They set the stage for displays of Heyerdahl’s research of the Polynesian origins on that island. You can also see the Ra II reed boat, delve into Easter Island caves to see carved rock art, and read about the other excavations and research Heyerdahl conducted.

Kon-Tiki - Expedition

Photo: Peter Szarner / Kon-Tiki Museet
A reconstruction of shark, like those encountered on the Kon-Tiki expedition.

I stopped at a display in the Kon-Tiki room that described the strong opposition Heyerdahl faced for his hypothesis on trans-Pacific migration. Opposition to this and other hypotheses would follow him for the rest of his life. 

First, I should clarify that Heyerdahl had a number of hypotheses, not theories. A theory is an exhaustively tested and independently verified hypothesis that lasts the test of time and later research. That’s how science defines a theory, and it becomes clear early in the museum signage that Heyerdahl wanted to be seen as a man of science.

The resistance Heyerdahl encountered, I believe, arose from a somewhat unorthodox approach, especially in how he communicated his research, his non-academic background and expertise. Finally, Heyerdahl did not fully “play by the rules” of presenting his research and drawing conclusions from the data. 

I believe Heyerdahl demonstrated that balsa or reed boats based on historical designs were capable of traveling long distances with a surviving crew and that the Easter Island moai could have been erected with little more than ropes and levers. After all, Heyerdahl’s doing “the impossible” is hard to ignore.

He gathered stories, legends, artifacts, and historical records of early visitors to South America and Polynesia. Attempts to publish his findings were declared “amateurish” from a scientific point of view, because his manuscripts lacked citations. But Heyerdahl did work to establish himself as a scholar and scientist by doing more research and publishing American Indians in the Pacific (1952), a nearly 800-page tome with extensive citations, demonstrating exactly where he found his data. He also brought established anthropologists and archaeologists on later expeditions. In this way, if he lacked academic credibility, his co-authors did not. 

Kon-Tiki - Museum

Photo: Peter Szarner / Kon-Tiki Museet
Bow view of the Ra II.

Still, scientific publishers dismissed Heyerdahl’s ideas, including his demonstration with the Kon-Tiki raft, as nothing more than the exploits of an adventurer and “attention-seeker,” lacking formal education in anthropology. Heyerdahl lamented this and admitted to being frustrated by the scientific community. He had little formal education beyond studying zoology at the University of Oslo, and the lack of a Ph.D. was an insurmountable problem. His passion was getting outside and “doing.”  Regardless, by the end of his life, Heyerdahl received 13 honorary doctorates. 

Heyerdahl extensively used the stories he collected from natives in Polynesia, South America, and other locations to create his hypotheses. He also used cultural similarities in linguistics, architecture, and symbology. Established academics claimed that he relied too heavily on stories, that he accepted them as fact, and that he ignored “pit archeology,” or the excavation of physical remains. He did, however, bolster his ideas later with collected objects and excavations.

Since publication in peer-reviewed journals was not attainable, Heyerdahl wrote popular books. Because he wrote with an aura of mystery and discovery, like any engaging and captivating author, he became wildly successful and loved by the public. Perhaps the biggest critique was Heyerdahl’s tendency to speculate, something he did in his popular books. He was then accused of being sensationalistic and appealing to the masses; he couldn’t win. 

Back in the Kon-Tiki Museum, I looked around at Heyerdahl’s many accomplishments. One of the exhibits points out that Heyerdahl was scrupulous in not accepting any endorsements from corporations or the government. In his obituary published in The Telegraph (2002), it was written that he came to “resent the celebrity the Kon-Tiki had brought him, arguing that it had pigeonholed him as a daredevil explorer rather than as a man of science.” 

Heyerdahl also was a proponent of environmental sustainability and is credited with the passage of the international ban on ocean dumping. Following in his footsteps, his grandson, Bjørn Heyerdahl, recently launched the Midgard Expedition. (Read “The Midgard Viking Expedition: A journey of sustainability in the Jan. 24, 2020, edition of The Norwegian American.) 

One only needs to look in the local library to see Heyerdahl’s popular impact. His 1948 “inspiring tale of daring and courage,” The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas has been translated into 67 languages. With his books, Heyerdahl inspired generations of scholars and pioneered the concept of experimental archaeology, from which much has been learned about the past by simulating it in the present. 

As I left the Kon-Tiki Museum this trip, I understood that insatiable curiosity and taking a stand, even in the face of opposition, is sometimes necessary to recognize who we are as humans. A cartoon, depicting a stork with a frog in his bill, was posted above Heyerdahl’s desk. Its caption says it all. “Never give up.” 

Tour the Kon-Tiki Museum online at Scroll down and select “click here” for the iGuide 3D Tour of the Museum. Also, watch the 2012 movie Kon-Tiki as well as Heyerdahl’s original 1950 Kon-Tiki documentary that won an Oscar. And, by all means, don’t forget his books.

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies. He produces and hosts the interviews and music podcast Nordic on Tap:

This article originally appeared in the April 17, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Eric Stavney

Eric Stavney is a graduate of the University of Washington Department of Scandinavian Studies and hosts the interviews and music podcast “Nordic on Tap” at