Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum
Vasa Museum

Have you ever read in a guidebook or heard someone say something along the lines of, “If you see only one _fill in the type of attraction_ in _fill in the name of the city_ make it _fill in the name of the attraction_?” I have and I’ve always thought that those sorts of statements were exceptionally preposterous. If you can avoid making only one declaration in your life, avoid making that one.

We all have different tastes. My favourite attraction might totally bore or even horribly annoy you. It is ludicrously presumptuous of anyone to tell you that something is the one thing you should see if you have time to see only one thing, rather than describing what you will see there and letting you decide whether that’s what you most want to visit.

That notwithstanding, if you’re in Stockholm and you have time to visit only one museum make it the Vasa Museum. There, I’ve said it. Feel free to condemn me for my hypocrisy.

Vasa side view
Vasa side view

One Artifact

Many of the world’s great museums boast about how many thousands, tens of thousands or even millions of artifacts they have—typically so many that the majority of the collection is in storage, possibly occasionally rotated in special exhibitions, because the museums don’t have enough public display space to show the entire collection all of the time.

Vasa Museum isn’t like that. It boasts that it has one—and only one—artifact. (Assuming that you count all of the things that would normally be inside of or attached to that artifact as being part of the same artifact.)

However, it’s a big artifact. A really big artifact. It’s a ship. A big ship. And it’s on a dry floor inside a fully enclosed museum, not floating beside a dock.

Vasa top view
Vasa top view

If you’re like me, when you walk into Vasa Museum your jaw will drop. (Pick it up and put it back in place because it’s difficult to chew food with your jaw on the floor.) You’re immediately confronted with a large, old, whole wooden ship that, as I said, is in a building. The ambient light is dim, but lights highlight the ship quite dramatically.

The ship is the Vasa. Vasa was commissioned by King Gustov II Adolph of Sweden in 1625 to be the largest warship in Sweden’s proud fleet. (Sweden was less pacifistic than it is today, with major fights going on between it and Denmark.)

Vasa was built to impress. It had considerably more canons than most warships of its day. It was richly decorated with colourful wooden sculptures and carvings. And it was very big for its time.

After two years of construction, the Vasa, mighty ship that it was, was ready for its triumphal maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. Unlike on regular naval missions, sailors were given permission to bring their families on board for this momentous occasion—the launch of a glorious warship.

Model of the Vasa
Model of the Vasa

Less than an hour into the voyage, barely 1,300 meters away from its dock, a breeze came up, the Vasa keeled over and it sank in about 32 metres of water within 20 minutes. As many as 30 people drowned.

It turns out that the Vasa was poorly designed: top-heavy, particularly with its canons; lower-level gun ports too close to the waterline; and inadequate ballast. Yet, despite all of these design issues, after an extensive investigation no one was officially blamed for the disaster.

Raising the Vasa

Several attempts were made to salvage Vasa in the years following its sinking, but all of them failed. Serious attempts ended for well over 300 years. It wasn’t until April 24, 1961, after nearly two years of preparation, that Vasa was finally raised and towed into dry dock.

Vasa’s brackish watery grave afforded it an advantage. The organisms that cause much of the decay in shipwrecks can’t live in brackish water. Consequently, Vasa was well-preserved even after all of those years.

Vasa decorations
Vasa decorations

Vasa wasn’t all in one piece when it was hauled up. But specialists pieced most of the detached parts back in place. About 98% of the ship in Vasa Museum is from the original vessel.

Preservation of Vasa was, in essence, an experiment because no one had ever done anything like it on that scale. At first, the ship was sprayed regularly with seawater to keep the wood from drying out. Later, a better solution was found. For 17 years, Vasa was sprayed with polyethylene glycol (PEG) to displace the water and preserve the wood.

Preservation is an ongoing experiment. Problems, such as rusting bolts that accelerate the decay of the wood, are solved as they are found, sometimes at tremendous expense. The goal is to preserve Vasa for another 600 years.

Vasa canons
Vasa canons

At the Museum

Rather than moving Vasa, which would have been a monumental task, the Vasa Museum was constructed around Vasa in it’s dry dock.

The public is not allowed on Vasa, but you can view it from galleries on a variety of levels. In addition, exhibits in the building include a small model of the ship and life-size recreations of some of the rooms inside it. There are also displays of items from inside and on the ship, such as a couple of its canons and some restored painted wooden statues.

There are signs with descriptive text in both Swedish and English throughout the museum.

Vasa Museum also houses two theatres—a large one and a small one. When I was there, both theatres played the same 15-minute film on Vasa, its salvage and its restoration. The film’s narration is in different languages at different times, but whenever the audio is in a language other than English there are English subtitles.

Without any planning on my part, I happened to wander by the large theatre shortly before the English-narrated version was about to start. I sat through the last few minutes of French narration, waited for the English version to start, and watched the whole film. It was time well spent.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence or intelligent planning on the part of the museum, but a few minutes after the English-narrated film ended, the PA system in the museum announced that a (free) English tour would be starting in a few minutes.

Free is one of my favourite words. So I eagerly joined the 25-minute tour. (By the way, if you buy the Stockholm Card—and if you’re going to take in a lot of the tourist attractions in Stockholm I highly recommend that you do—admission to the Museum is included with the card.)

The tour guide told us facts and figures about Vasa, provided information on its construction, sinking and preservation, and described what life was like on warships like Vasa back in 17th century Sweden. (Life wasn’t like that on the Vasa because there wasn’t enough time before it sank for anyone to have much of a life aboard it.)

It was from the tour guide that I heard that the goal is to preserve Vasa for another 600 years. He said it with what sounded like a great deal of pride in his voice. Then again, no one alive today will ever know if they achieve that goal.

To sum up, if you’re going to be in Stockholm and you have time to visit only one museum there, make it Vasa Museum. Wait. I seem to recall saying that already. Never mind. Just go.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.