A visit to Stockholm’s incredible Vasa Museum
We left Rosersberg Slott early, to make our way back south into the centre of Stockholm. It was Sunday morning and the roads were entirely empty, a huge contrast to the static traffic experienced during our slow escape on Friday. We headed for the Osterhalm region of Stockholm, a little north east of the main centre, and easily found suitable free parking near to the stadium. We casually walked the remaining mile towards the water’s edge then followed the promenade around east to cross the bridge to the island of Djurgården. It was dull and grey, overcast and a little chilly in the wind, so we were glad to have plans for spending the day inside, our target being the celebrated Vasa Museum. There were no queues on our arrival and with seconds of entering the front door we had our tickets in hand and were ready to move through into the museum.
We were immediately greeted by the rediscovered Vasa standing proud directly in front of us, dominating the three storey hall designed specifically to house it. We obviously expected to see it, but it was still a real ‘wow’ moment. We simply stared at the size, the complexity and the decorative quality of the ship for a few long moments, trying to take it all in. We approached the ship to view it closer, awestruck by the height and incredible detail. The nearby beakhead deck was decorated with many carved statues of saints and, just beyond, there was a three metre long lion carved in lime that formed the figurehead. We approached the intricate 1:10 scale model of the ship as it would have looked under full sail; brightly, almost garishly, coloured, and this allowed us to imagine the impressive sight it must have been to the launch-day crowds.
The story of the fateful Vasa is one of tragic incompetence. It was built to be the flagship of the then dominant Swedish Navy; regal, fast and powerful. But over-reaching artillery ambitions and the poor design combinations of a relatively narrow base and a top deck too heavy with excessive cannons, conspired to topple the ship on her maiden voyage. Only minutes from launching, the unstable ship listed badly and water flowed in open cannon ports, quickly flooding the hold. In a few short minutes the ship sank, having travelled only 1500m from its launch spot. Many of the 400+ crew were saved by quick-acting local boatmen, with only between 30-50 unlucky sailors perishing with the ship. Later attempts were made to resurface the 64 valuable bronze cannons, with all but three being recovered, allowing those previously unclaimed to now take their place in the museum.
The wreck, settled in the brackish harbour waters at a depth of 30m, was slowly forgotten, until its rediscovery and eventual salvage some 333 years later, in 1961. Now the world’s only remaining 17th century ship, the Vasa has been painstakingly reconstructed and restored and is 98% original. There are more than 700 carved wooden sculptures on the ship, making it a unique natural treasure for Sweden, and the world. The ship’s wooden elements were preserved in the toxic, brackish mud of the harbour, where sea-worms could not live and other micro-organisms that ordinarily devour timber struggled to survive. This pollution was the key to the fortunate survival of the ship, but resurfacing it brought many complex issues for those tasked with the ship’s restoration and upkeep.
Once out of the water, our oxygen-rich atmosphere continually attacked the wood, which had to be continually sprayed, for over 17 years, with several specially formulated preservatives until they fully penetrated the timbers at a microscopic level. The ship is continually monitored carefully for further damage and decay, the camera and lasers having already picked up that the Vasa lists 1mm per year in its current cradle, so a new support system is currently under design. The treated galvanised bolts installed in the 1970s to help reconstruct the ship have also since caused on-going issues by rusting and leeching iron into the wood, so all 5000 of these are now in the slow process of being removed and replaced with more inert stainless steel variants.
After watching the very informative movie on the rising of the Vasa, we browsed the many displays as we worked our way around the museum. We watched a video of the ship under construction, fleshing out the context of the typical 17th century Swedish life and the culture of that era. We saw detailed models of the complex efforts required to bring Vasa back to the surface. Steel cables had to be delicately threaded through murky tunnels dangerously dug out by hand by divers crawling under the resting hull. These were then used, from specially designed pontoons set on each side of the wreck, to crane the vessel up whole; an incredible effort and an historic achievement.
There was a full-scale recreation of one cannon floor from the Vasa that we ducked and weaved our way through. We stood in the heavy diving bell that intrepid salvagers used to access the wreck and collect items of interest. There were display cases with the skeletons of bodies found on board the ship, with facial recreation models, best guesses of how those unfortunate enough to have perished on board may have looked at the time of the disaster. There was a full explanation of all the intricate scientific processes involved in the preservation of the ship initially and later of the attempts to control any decay since resurrection. There were hundreds of fascinating items that had been recovered from the ship on display, from crockery to clothing to cannon-balls.
The entire museum experience was one of the best we’d been to, informative on so many levels. It was historic, scientific, artistic, adventurous and imaginative, with a slight political tint as it touched on Class War and Feminist issues. The building was a perfect void to allow the ship to be showcased on several levels, cast in-situ concrete walls and columns remaining unobtrusively in the background, allowing the Vasa to have all the attention and plaudits. The Vasa can be viewed from six different levels within the museum, and from all sides, allowing a fully immersive exploration of all parts of the ship. A very noble effort and we would fully recommend it to all – go visit!
We returned to the fresh, cool air outside and walked a while around the island of Djurgården, passing the Nordic Museum building that reminded us of the Natural History museum in London. We didn’t linger, having had our fill of learning for one day, but returned along the wide promenade and through bustling streets to find Benny, our time in Stockholm at a close. Cities are wonderful places; historic, bright, busy and loud, but it was back to the wilds for us.