Armour

Stockholm Mop-Up Post

I visited a few more museums in Stockholm (believe it or not), but for various reasons, none of them merited a post of their own, so I’m going to briefly discuss each here. The first was the Nobel Museum, which we rushed out to see shortly after arriving in Stockholm, because it offers free entry on Tuesday evenings from 5-8 (and is 120 SEK, or about 11 pounds the rest of the time, so you’re saving a substantial amount of money). I was actually pretty excited about seeing this, because it sounded really cool, and I was interested to learn more about Alfred Nobel and all the Nobel prize winners over the years, but it ended up just being a terrible experience all around.

  

To start with, we had to queue for a while in a square to gain entry whilst some sort of demonstration (as in protest) was taking place right next to us (not sure what, because all their signs were in Swedish, but judging by the flags, it had something to do with Cuba). And when we finally got inside, man, what a disappointment!  The “museum” was really small, consisting of a sort of grand entrance hall, a smaller hallway off to one side, and a couple lecture theatre-type spaces showing short films. Almost all the “artefacts” in the main hall were re-creations, and there weren’t even many of those, the museum mainly being composed of posters and videos, and it was way too crowded in there to read or watch any of them properly, not that they looked all that interesting in the first place (they seemed to have only very basic information on them). There were a few actual artefacts in the smaller hall, but we were completely crammed in (don’t be deceived by the photo, the smaller hall was about 10x more crowded than the main one), and I don’t do well with crowds (I’m not actually agoraphobic or anything, I just don’t like people), so I gave them only a brief glance. We were in and out of the place in under half an hour (not counting the queueing time), and I’m so glad we didn’t waste 11 quid each on this! The highlight was seriously the gift shop with its postcards featuring extremely obscure Nobel prize winners which I found (probably inappropriately) hilarious.  If, despite my negativity, you still want to see the museum, I would definitely just suck it up and brave the crowds and come on a Tuesday evening, because no way is this place worth what they’re charging. 1/5.

  

Though we didn’t want to pay to go in the Royal Palace (it wasn’t only cheapness in this case; it’s just that Stockholm’s looked like a fairly standard issue royal palace (god, that makes me sound like an awful snob), and I thought I’d rather spend time seeing museums unique to Stockholm), we did see a couple of the free museums attached to the Palace. The first of these was the Royal Armoury or Livrustkammaren (I love the Swedish word for it, since it contains “rust,” which could accurately describe old unloved armour). Most of the object labels were in Swedish only, but there were signs in English on the walls explaining what was in each room, so I managed well enough.

  

Though there wasn’t as much actual armour in here as there is in some armouries, I still thought it was alright. They had a collection of clothing belonging to the Swedish royal family through the centuries, and some child-size armour as well. They also had a random exhibition about samurai swords.

  

My main complaint (other than the number of people in there, particularly this one weird American couple who kept following us around and taking pictures of whatever we were taking pictures of, which was super annoying) was that the different sections of the museum weren’t connected, so after reaching the end of the main hall, and discovering that the upper floor was the children’s space (which wasn’t marked anywhere in English til after we went up, so I took a cheeky picture in the dressing-up throne since I was already there), we had to walk back through all the galleries (a not insubstantial number of them) to go down into the basement to see the carriage house. It definitely wasn’t the greatest armoury I’ve ever been to (that honour probably goes to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, because it’s so much more than just an armoury), but it wasn’t awful either, particularly because it was free. 2.5/5.

  

The final museum is the Royal Coin Cabinet. I’m gonna be honest; the only reason we visited this is because their brochure said they had the world’s largest coin, which visitors could try to lift (you can see me doing just that, above). So we barely even looked at what was in the museum, and made a beeline for the coin, which was a rectangular slab that weighed 19 kg (not all that hard to lift for an adult, but it was tied down, so you could only lift it a couple inches in the air anyway). I did stop to admire some of the designs of Weimer-era, heavily inflated German notes (check out that moon!), but I don’t feel that I can even give this one a score because I really didn’t take the time to read anything. It is another free way to kill some time though, which is pretty much exactly what we were doing before our flight home.

 

However, visiting museums wasn’t the only thing we did in Stockholm (though it was probably how we spent 80% of our non-sleeping/watching TV in our hotel room (I learned that minigolf is a televised sport in Sweden, which is kind of awesome) time there). We also strolled around a bit and explored the city, and thus got to see some cool statues and things. I love the poor beggar fox statue because it reminds me of Disney’s Robin Hood (I think it was supposed to be making me think about the plight of the homeless, but he was just so darn cute). And you may be able to spot some lady bits on the side of that building, beneath the guy’s head (don’t ask me why).

  

I’m guessing that lions are one of the symbols of Stockholm, because they were EVERYWHERE in Stockholm – on buildings, on statues, and even serving as adorable traffic bollards at the ends of pedestrianised streets. We found one with a cone on his head down the street from our hotel, on one of the main shopping streets, but the island I refer to as “Hipster Island” was the only place I saw female lions too, and they were pretty great.

  

We only ate in a restaurant once, because Sweden is not cheap, and except for the sweets (not counting licorice, because barf), Swedish food didn’t sound particularly appealing (actually we don’t eat out much on holiday generally unless we’re in a country with a particularly delicious nonmeaty national cuisine, because restaurant food every day can get expensive anywhere, plus my vegetarianism and general picky eating make restaurants tricky in some countries. I’m kind of the worst); the rest of the time we resorted to good ol’ bread, hummus, and crisps from the supermarket. So what did I choose to eat on our one restaurant visit? Yep, a big old bowl of hummus (with falafel balls and amazing deep fried halloumi) from FLFL on “Hipster Island,” because I can’t pass up falafel, and their hummus was about 10x better than the supermarket stuff, so I have no regrets. I supplemented my hummusy diet with frequent stops at bakeries for kanelbuller (cinnamon buns), ice cream (the Swedes seem particularly partial to soft serve with sprinkles, as am I (the real stuff, made with actual milk and available as chocolate/vanilla twist, unlike the shitty disgusting unflavoured Mr. Whippy you get in the UK) so I was as happy as a sandboy), and of course Daim bars, which are probably my favourite candy bar, so it was nice to be in their homeland (and I loved the special edition orange ones, which I’ve never seen in the UK).

   

I actually wasn’t too sure how I would feel about Stockholm when we booked the trip, because I didn’t particularly enjoy either Copenhagen or Malmo when we visited a few years ago, and I thought all of Scandinavia would be similar, so I’m happy to report that I was proven wrong!  Stockholm is a beautiful city, and each island has a distinct character, which made it an interesting place to explore. I also liked that it felt fairly hip (though not overly so, except maybe on “Hipster Island”) and there were so many museums there that I barely even scratched the surface (just means I’ll have to return some day!). It was fairly easy to get around via public transport, mainly trams and buses, though we did take a ferry once just for the hell of it (they also have a metro system, but we never ended up using it) – we purchased a travel card for the duration of our stay which meant we didn’t have to worry about the cost of individual trips; my only complaint is that a lot of the buses only came twice an hour, so you had a lengthy wait if you missed one (I might just be spoiled by TfL though)!  Be forewarned that Stockholm is as expensive as everyone says it is, but by not eating out much (ice cream doesn’t count), and getting a deal on our hotel + flight, our trip as a whole wasn’t any more expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Also be aware that Stockholm is practically a cashless city; we didn’t bother to exchange any money before we left, and ended up not using cash at all during our stay. Even market stalls and ice cream carts there take cards, and a lot of the museums don’t accept cash at all, so definitely bring a card with a decent exchange rate and no foreign transaction fees.  So yeah, that’s Stockholm – a city that I’d happily return to despite all the crowds of peak tourist season, and I can’t really give a place a better endorsement than that!

 

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London: The Wallace Collection

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I feel almost certain that the Wallace Collection doesn’t spend enough time advertising the fact that they have an armoury, otherwise I definitely would have visited before this.  Here I was, labouring under the impression that it was just a bunch of boring old Dutch art, when they had this fabulous armoury hidden away in there the whole time!  But then again, to be honest, I’d never really given that much thought to the Wallace Collection one way or another (Dutch art or otherwise) until I realised just how dire my blogging situation is becoming (London’s a big city with loads of museums, but after almost four years of blogging, I’ve been to nearly every one of them.  I’m seriously worried I’m going to run out of blogging material!) and was desperately searching for any museum in London I hadn’t visited, regardless of how boring and unappealing it sounded.

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Although the Wallace Collection is free, which always wins a museum points in my book, it wasn’t doing anything to change my mind about the whole “boring and unappealing” theory at first glance. It was one of those places with a very hushed atmosphere, where you’re afraid to make any noise, and unfortunately, I happened to be wearing some unintentionally jangly boots (they have a little buckle on the back which jingled every time I took a step, which I definitely don’t remember them doing to that extent last year.  Must remember to try to remedy that before wearing them again), so I had to do a very weird walk where I stepped very slowly whilst barely raising my feet off the ground.  (Side note, I went to see Half a Sixpence after going to the Wallace Collection, and it has a song with the repeated lyric, “clanga janga ringa janga,” (it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, I swear!) so it might have been appropriate that I wore those boots after all.  Side note within a side note: I actually really loved Half a Sixpence!  It was cheesy, but that’s kind of what I want from a musical, and the songs were catchy as hell. Like this one.)

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It was also the sort of place where there was a guard in every room who would follow you around the room with their beady eyes (or maybe just me on account of my annoyingly loud boots), which makes me really super uncomfortable.  I always feel like they’re going to kick me out if I don’t look up to scratch (for the record, I’ve never been kicked out of a museum, but I did get kicked out of malls several times as a teenager on account of looking like a weirdo who was unsettling the normies, and I think it’s given me a complex), and my boots definitely weren’t helping.

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In addition, as you may have noticed, the whole place was done up in an opulent-but-ugly Louis “Various Roman Numerals” style (I’m assuming either XIV, XV, or XVI, but I don’t know enough about faux-French interiors to tell the difference), which made me feel really out of place.  I was basically just walking through the rooms as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I was trying not to make any noise) so I could say I’d visited it and could blog about it, until I saw a delightful sign hanging over some steps reading, “To the Armouries.”

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So I descended into the gloom, feeling glad to be free from the horrors of Louis whatever, only to be met with this magnificent sight at the bottom of the staircase.  They really weren’t exaggerating, this was a proper armoury!  I’m pretty sure my fondness for armour has been well-documented, but yeah, for a pacifist who isn’t particularly interested in modern instruments of war, I really like armour.  I almost did my Master’s in Medieval History instead of Early Modern History based solely on how much I like the bubonic plague and armour, but ended up going Early Modern instead because the programme convenor sounded nicer on the phone than the medieval lady (probably a wise choice in the end, as the Georgians are much more my speed than medieval people. I’m also a big fan of the Victorians…if there was a Master’s programme that combined the Georgians and Victorians, that would have been ideal).  Needless to say, I don’t know how an armoury of this calibre in London could have escaped my attention for all these years.

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The halls of armour were fabulous, and appeared to be arranged around a “secret” restaurant (I don’t think it’s actually secret, because they mention it on the website, but I didn’t see how you would enter it.  Not that I really cared, because museum restaurants aren’t really my scene and we were planning on going to the hole-in-the-wall producing delicious food that is the Roti King later that evening anyway. Roti canai is the best), so they basically took up almost an entire floor of the not-insubstantial building.  I also really liked that many of the pieces of armour (not all) had captions; even though I didn’t have time to read them all, it was nice to see after places like the armoury in Graz that had no signage whatsoever, in either German or English.

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It wasn’t only armour down here though; there was also an assortment of medieval jewels, religious carvings, and neat things made out of silver, like this ostrich eating horseshoes, which I think may have been a symbol featured on the Wallace coat of arms.  I assume this had something to do with the old myth that ostriches could digest metal (I don’t know where the idea came from, but they had an ostrich at the Tower of London back when it housed a menagerie (we’re talking 18th century here), and visitors would feed it nails, presumably until it died, but come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what ended up happening to that poor ostrich).  I guess I haven’t really mentioned the Wallace of the collection until now, but yeah, Sir Richard Wallace was a late 19th century Marquess of Hertford who expanded on the collection started by four of his ancestors, and after he died, his widow bequeathed it to the nation.  Which explains both why it is both eclectic, and free.

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It also wasn’t just medieval or early modern European armour here; there was a whole room of Eastern armour, which was pretty cool too, although I guess it doesn’t get as much attention as the European stuff because it doesn’t tend to have helmets and face plates made with ridiculous moustaches attached.

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After the glorious respite that the armoury provided, I reluctantly headed back upstairs to what I had come to think of as the “stuffy bit” to see the rest of the art.  We had reached the long gallery, ubiquitous in stately homes, which was indeed quite long and full of more art.

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However, this art was better than most of the crap in the other rooms, because they had the Laughing Cavalier, which I’m pretty sure is famous, and also that rather splendid portrait of George IV (I assume from his Prince of Wales or Regent years, because he was way more enormous by the time he became king).

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Aside from that though, the art here was fairly unmemorable, which is why I haven’t talked about it much.  Oh sure, there were a surprising number of paintings of chickens (which I love) and also a rather good cow picture downstairs, but most of it was just portraits of various low-level aristocrats, or still lifes of dead animals, and other similarly horrible and uninspiring stuff.  Basically, if I hadn’t seen the armouries, I wouldn’t be recommending this place to anyone.  But I did, and so I will!

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Though in my (very inexpert) opinion, there are only a few pieces of art here worth seeing (let’s be honest, the main attraction of the upstairs rooms is marvelling in how they managed to find curtains hideous enough to match the wallpaper), the armouries are splendid, and clearly a bit of a hidden gem.  For that reason alone, the Wallace Collection is definitely worth a look if you’re passing through the Marylebone/Bond Street area, and I felt that it was possibly even worth braving Oxford Street in December (the things I do for this blog)!  3/5 as a whole, but I’d rate the armouries higher.

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Graz, Austria: Landeszeughaus (Styrian Armoury)

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As I mentioned in my previous post, the other reason I was so keen on going to Graz (besides the pretzels, obviously), was the Styrian Armoury.  Around 5-6 years ago, I went to a medieval armour exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Like most of the special exhibitions at CMA, it was incredible.  They’d managed to acquire an unbelievable quantity of armour from around the world, including, most memorably, an entire army’s worth of pikemen, which they has arranged in impressive battle formation.  At the time, I noted that most of the collection was on loan from the Graz Armoury, and added it to my mental list of places to visit.

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Perhaps because armour is one of the few tangible reminders we have of the medieval era, or perhaps because it conjures up the imagery of jousting, chivalry, and glory which I suspect we all like to associate with the Middle Ages, no matter how far removed it is from reality, I’ve always had a soft spot for armour. (I feel this is an ideal time to insert a book recommendation regarding the fallacy of popular perceptions of medieval Europe: Ian Mortimer’s excellent Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England). Because of this, I’ve been to quite a few other armouries; most notably the Royal Armouries in Leeds (which I really should get around to writing a review of).  The Styrian Armoury was nothing like those.

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I think the Royal Armouries might be an exception, in that they seemed to be more about the history of British warfare in general, and included lots of fun interactives, but all of the other armouries I’ve visited follow a similar format.  There will usually be a striking centrepiece of a knight on a horse in full battle armour, surrounded by cases of various weapons, and some suits of armour belonging to famous (or at least wealthy) people, with captions throughout.  The Styrian Armoury effectively decides to do away with all that pesky (helpful?) reading and carefully arranged displays, choosing instead to cram as much crap into a tall, narrow building as is physically possible.

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Your 8 euro entrance fee gains you access to a darkened, cluttered labyrinth of metal.  The Armoury is spread out (I use that term loosely) over 5 or 6 floors (I lost track after a while), and you’re left to wander it at will, though under the constant hawk-like gaze of the staff.  All the surveillance was a bit puzzling, actually, since I was required to leave my (normal sized) purse in a locker at the entrance, so I’m not sure how they thought I was going to steal anything.  Was I just going to stick a giant sword under my arm and walk out?  Who knows, I guess people are capable of anything.  At any rate, despite the heavy staff presence, none of them were forthcoming with any information about the place.  I saw an audio guide mentioned online, but no one at the admissions desk offered it to us (though we probably would have been too cheap to get it anyway), and there were quite literally no signs of any kind in the armoury.

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I honestly don’t think I’ve ever left a museum before knowing less about it than I did when I walked in, but I feel that’s what happened at the Styrian Armoury.  From what I’ve been able to cobble together on the internet, I believe everything there was for the purpose of equipping the Styrian forces, and that it was a sort of communal arsenal that they would collect their armour from in times of war.  That would explain the unusual layout, as well as the sheer size of the collection.  Most of it was identical, e.g. a wall of matching shields, or a shelf of helmets, rather than the finely wrought detail and unique design of privately commissioned armour, which is what makes up the bulk of collections elsewhere. I’m not even sure if the armour here was properly medieval, as their website claims the collection dates from the 15th-18th centuries, but the building itself is 17th century, which would make it Early Modern instead.  Ugh, so many questions!

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My most pressing question, however, remains this: what happened to all the codpieces?  After passing wall after wall of breastplates and pikes, I was all geared up for the inevitable wall of codpieces.  Alas, there was not a codpiece to be found in the entire armoury, not even on the otherwise complete suits of armour.  I want to know how the men of Styria protected their, erm, manhood. Every other armoury I’ve been to has had codpieces galore, so why not here?

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See, not a codpiece in sight!

I suppose all my questions will have to remain unanswered, as the complete dearth of information at the armoury left me feeling clueless. It’s a shame, because I really liked the atmosphere of the armoury, and the, shall we say, eclectic arrangement of their collection, but if I visit something historical, I want to learn all that I can about it.  The Styrian Armoury left me feeling at a loss.

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I’m only going to give the Styrian Armoury a 2/5.  It was neat to be able to see so much armour in one place, but I really don’t think it would kill them to throw up a few signs.  After seeing the amazing exhibit the Cleveland Museum of Art was able to put together with the same objects, I can’t help but feel that the Styrian Armoury suffers from a real lack of effort.  And 8 euros frankly seems pretty steep for something that doesn’t appear to have been curated at all. It’s probably worth checking out if you’re in the area already, and exceedingly bored, but I wouldn’t make a special trip there the way we did.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis).  This picture was taken after I'd already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20!  The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the armoury, but Graz had some amazingly creamy and delicious ice cream (eis). This picture was taken after I’d already eaten about half the scoop, and it only cost 1.20! The perfect way to ease my disappointment over the armoury.