Stockholm: The Vasa Museum (Vasa Museet)

Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.

 

The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.

  

There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.

  

The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.

  

As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).

  

There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.

  

I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.

  

One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail.  I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items.  However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.

  

Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.

  

I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).

  

The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.

  

Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.

  

Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from.  They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.

  

So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.

 

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16 comments

  1. Thank you for taking us along on this tour of the Vassa Museum. I’d heard about it but haven’t had a chance to visit yet as so far I’ve only visited Stockholm on a day cruise from Helsinki.

  2. Wow, that is one crowded museum. I actually felt tinges of claustrophobia looking at all the people milling in the background. But I wholeheartedly agree – that is an incredible ship! I’d have been over-the-moon if they’d let you climb inside. I can see how you felt let-down that you couldn’t.
    I love all the little figures, paintings and statues here – they’re all so satisfyingly stout! I especially loved the round Gustavus Adolphus-praying figure. I’m not one for religious items, but I’d love to have that little guy on my mantle (is that sufficiently irreverent?)
    But I think my favourite are the facial reconstructions. I have to say, I think they’re the best I’ve ever seen. Most have that heavy, putty-faced leaden look but these, with what I’m sure is a good dose of artistic license, really come alive.
    Oh, and I am so glad you mentioned that archaic looking diving suit and not realizing they were still around in the ‘60s. I didn’t know that either. Looking at it, for one ridiculous moment I thought “A 17th century diving suit?” I promise I know better, but still for one moment I was confused.

    1. It’s not even so much that I wanted to climb inside (because I wasn’t really expecting to be able to with a ship that old, though I agree it would be amazing if you could), but that I couldn’t see the interior at all. But I’m not really sure how they could have accomplished that without ruining part of the ship, which is why I think maybe it was a little too well preserved for its own good. The Mary Rose had half of it rotted away, so you could just look right inside the whole thing.
      They are pretty good facial reconstructions, maybe because nobody knows who they were, and thus we don’t have portraits of them or a preconceived notion of what they should look like. I’m thinking of this hilariously bad reconstruction of Richard III when I say that: https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/About/General/2013/2/5/1360074510147/A-facial-reconstruction-o-010.jpg?w=300&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=95c928c977d62b4593331a0bfbe3919a
      And I wouldn’t feel bad about the diving suit. Apparently they did have them as early as 1710, which I had to look up, because I don’t know anything about them either. Diving scares me, and I would never ever do it. Even if there weren’t so many gross things living in the sea, I’ve read enough stories about people’s intestines getting sucked into the toilets into decompression chambers to put me off it for life.

      1. Oh yeah, that Richard III! Yikes. You’d think they’d have taken more care, what with all the hoopla around the discovery. I don’t know why but I fixate on the eyebrows – they bother me a lot.
        Wow, I’d never have guessed as early as 1710. And I’m like you – you’d never catch me diving (and that’s before you taught me about the intestine-sucking business) but then I don’t even really enjoy swimming either.

  3. I’ve also been to this museum and I agree that the crowds make it more difficult to enjoy. We arrived just at opening time and even then it was uncomfortably busy. Still, it’s an awesome sight when you see the ship in front of you as you enter. And the spooky diving suit and the explanation of how they raised the ship was my favourite bit too!

    1. I’m kind of glad to hear that, because I didn’t know if we should have tried to go there first and then go to the ABBA Museum, but it looks like I made the right choice by going to the ABBA Museum first, because that was pretty empty, but was clearly getting crowded by the time I left. It is a shame there’s not an off-peak time to visit the Vasa, at least in the summer!

    1. They do indeed! They did have some information about the people they did reconstructions of, based on the skeletal evidence, but the Mary Rose was far more detailed, probably because they found scraps of clothing and personal items on some of the bodies, but the Vasa dead seemed to have been pretty well skeletonised.

  4. i visited Vasa Museum 5 years ago and it really is a very interesting place to visit in Stockholm. Can’t u just imagine watching that old original ship on display?! It’s very historical,…. A must-see in Stockholm…

    1. Thanks for the link! It looks like you noticed some things I didn’t as well! It’s a big museum, and as we’ve both mentioned, the crowds definitely don’t help when it comes to seeing everything. If there were too many people around something, I usually just gave up and looked at something else instead, because I’m impatient!

  5. Aw, I’m sorry you didn’t love the Vasa Museum. It’s one of my favorites, but I’ve never been there when it has been crowded – that would be bad. When it isn’t busy, the exhibits seem to float in the darkness, which is really cool and kind of feels like being underwater. I’ll admit though that, as much as I love this museum, I also really wish I could see inside the ship. BTW – I can’t believe that you would be grossed out by sea creatures with your love of mummified body parts and pickled organs and such!!

    1. It’s OK, it’d be awfully boring if I liked everywhere! And I can see that the museum has potential, I just couldn’t get past the crowds.
      I am grossed out by a lot of stuff actually. Human parts are some of the only things I have a strong stomach about. I am terrified of butterflies and moths (which is a really stupid phobia) and HATE lobsters, crabs, isopods; pretty much anything in the sea that’s not a fish or a turtle or a mammal of some sort scares the crap out of me. I am also grossed out by meat to the extent that I won’t let anyone cook meat in my flat, because it would taint my pans forever. Yet, I preserved a pig’s heart in formaldehyde, and had no problem with it, because it just looked like a heart, not like meat. I’m weird.

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