Vasa Ship Museum (Vasamuseet) is one of the best known museums of Djurgården. As its name suggests, it is basically built around one single exhibit: Vasa ship.

Some history is in order, now. Sweden in the 17th century was a major European power. At the peak of its growth, it ruled over territories which are now known as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, parts of Russian Republic of Karelia and Russian Leningrad Oblast, and some territories in Germany (Bremen-Verden) and Poland (Pomerania). During this period, Sweden also finalized its own borders, annexing Scania, Öland, Jämtland, and some other territories. Russia in particular had a lot of wars with Sweden in 17th and 18th centuries.

King Gustav II Adolf the Great ruled Sweden in 1611-1632, and he is now known as one of the greatest military commanders Sweden ever had; he is even considered “the father of modern warfare”, and he was greatly admired by Napoleon himself. He was the one who recognized that the Swedish Navy had to be modernized in order to be competitive. At the time, boarding was considered to be how naval battles are won. Gustav Adolf however loved artillery, and ordered construction of new warships, heavily armed with cannons. Which turned out to be a really great idea, except for that minor Vasa mishap. Vasa was to be the first of these ships with two cannon decks, and to become the flagship of the Swedish Navy. Thus, it was laid down in 1626, at the shipyard on Blasieholmen (just off the Old Town of Stockholm, now built-up and connected to the mainland).

Vasa was to be a very impressive ship, 47.5 meters long with 64 cannons in total, and lots and lots of ornamentation. The thing is, the design had major stability problems. The ship was too tall and top-heavy with all those cannons, and not nearly wide enough. It pretty much was unable to sail.

Now, of course the engineers and shipwrights and even simple seamen watching the ship hull grow at the shipyard, had some idea that something was wrong. But laws of physics which apply to ships were not known at the time, and everything was done pretty much by rule of thumb. And if the king orders you to put more and more cannons on the ship, who are you to refuse him. In the end Vasa was launched in 1628 with no major changes to its design.

You could have guessed what happened next. Vasa set sail and actually managed to sail for about a kilometer, just until the first gust of wind. Which promptly capsized the ship. Which sank right in the harbor, in full view of pretty much the entire Stockholm watching the show, including the king. Quite an embarassment. Most of the crew escaped, but still, 30 people died in the shipwreck.

Naturally the king was furious and there was an intense inquest, but in the end most of the blame was pinned on two master shipwrights, who had conveniently died of natural causes before the ship was launched. Attempts to salvage Vasa began immediately, but were not particularly successful. About 30 years later, a diving team managed to recover nearly all of the ship’s cannons, which were the most valuable part of the ship at the time. Kind of surprising that there was sufficient knowledge of diving technology at the time.

After that, Vasa was pretty much forgotten. The shipwrights at least learned from their mistakes, and other large ships with two cannon decks were redesigned accordingly, and launched and served without similar incidents.

Vasa ended up laying on the bottom of Stockholm harbor for 333 years. Amazingly, these 333 years did not do nearly as much damage as you would expect. Brackish water of the Baltic Sea was one of the factors, and the pollution of Stockholm harbor was another one. Up until well into the 20th century, water in Stockholm harbor used to be extremely dirty, unable to sustain most species, including the shipworm, the bane of wooden shipwrecks. In 1956, the location of the wreck (just off the island of Beckholmen, featured in my previous post) was pinpointed by an amateur archaeologist, and he convinced the navy, the National Maritime Museum, and a private salvage company to try recovering Vasa once more.

Long story short, in 1961, the wreck was finally raised from the sea bottom with several pontoons, and put into a temporary shelter Wasavarvet*(Vasa Shipyard). In 1988, a permanent museum building was built. According to Wikipedia, Vasa now accounts as the 6th oldest surviving ship in the world, and much bigger than any of those five which predate it. So, we finished with our tea in Vasa Museum restaurant, and beheld Vasa.

*Wasa was the actual historical spelling. In modern Swedish, Vasa the ship, and the Royal House of Vasa after which it had been named, are spelled with a V.

1. So, this is what you see as soon as you enter the museum. The Vasa hulk is dark brown with age. New masts and probably some superstructure were fitted after Vasa recovery, and its bow had to be rebuilt, but the rest of the ship is 100% authentic.

2. The ship had been richly adorned with statues. 333 years spent underwater smoothed them over like sandpaper, but their features still can be made out.

3. Port side. Two rows of gun ports are clearly visible.

4. You can examine the ship from any of the three floors of the museum, or maybe even four, I don’t remember exactly.

5. A large model, positioned next to the actual Vasa, depicts the undamaged ship as it was launched.

6. The ship itself is not the only exhibit, actually. More exhibitions tell about its history, construction, crew, sinking, recovery, and preservation efforts. These wooden beams illustrate shipworm damage. The lower (darker) one is from Vasa, and holds its shape perfectly. The higher (ligher) one, from another shipwreck of the same age, is severely decayed and has several holes. That ship sunk in the salty Kattegat, a much better shipworm habitat.

7. The red dot in the middle marks the site of the shipwreck. The island of Beckholmen with its docks is immediately upwards.

8. Illustration of the recovery of Vasa.

9. And here it is already raised from the bottom. The bow was badly damaged, during the early recovery attempts if I remember correctly, and a wooden cage, visible here, had to be temporarily assembled around it before the recovery.

10. The actual pictures of the salvage operation. A diver in the bottom right corner holds the skull of one of the crew members.

11. Before the wreck could be raised, however, several tunnels had to be dug out right under it, it the mud underwater, don’t remember why exactly. This must have been a truly hellish job.

12. The guy in red is actually supposed to be King Gustav II Adolf the Great himself. Well he wasn’t called “the Great” at the time, but still. (That title was bestowed on him after his death, and he is the only Swedish king in history to be ever called “the Great”).

13. A stylized map of the Baltic Sea of the period. I like how the civilization pretty much ends where Russia starts in the east.

14. The cross-section of the ship. It really looks kind of unstable.

15. And that’s how it probably looked when Vasa was about to capsize.

16. Gotta love the guy on the left.

17. A copy of the inquest protocols.

18. Replicas of some of the statues on the stern. The statues were originally painted in bright and even outright gaudy colors.

19. Paints which were used at the time, and what they were made of.

20. The green paint apparently came from malachite. Malachite stone is considered rather iconic of the Ural Mountains where I come from, so I like seeing it in unexpected places.

21. Close-up on some of the statues. The guy in the middle with worms apparently crawling into his facial orifices looks creepy.

22. Back to the ship itself, the thing to the left is its rudder.

23. Starboard gun ports.

24. Vasa really used up a lot of oak wood, enough for a small forest.

25. This is what Blasieholmen shipyard looked like in the 17th century. Vasa hull is in the middle.

26. Remains of most of the deceased crew members were found on the recovered Vasa wreck. These are some facial reconstructions. For some people, the location of their remains and their surviving possessions helped to make a good guess who they were and what they were doing at the moment of the sinking. Others are a mystery. The remains themselves show that most people aboard were malnourished and had many old injuries, like poorly-healed fractures.

27. You can actually see their skeletons themselves. This seems like a questionable idea, honestly. I’m not a prudish guy, but these people probably wouldn’t have enjoyed thousands of visitors looking at their remains every day.

28. Several of the gun carriages on display. Most of the cannons themselves, as you remember, were salvaged back in the 17th century. Some of the remaining ones are also exhibited here, but I seem to have forgotten to take a picture of them.

29. A lot of the crew possessions are on display as well, many also surprisingly well preserved, like these backgammon boards.

30. Some coins.

31. Contents of a random seaman’s chest.

32. And the chest itself.

33. Ceramic pottery, good as new.

34. A golden ring belonging to some officer, the only piece of jewelry found in the wreck.

35. My mom would have loved these plates!

36. And these are the chamber pots. Can’t sail without chamber pots.

37. Another cross-section, a lengthwise one. Shows some of the crew at work.


39. A replica of the mess room.

40. Amazingly, even a part of one of the sails survived! Well that was the only sail that wasn’t hoisted at the moment of the sinking, but still.

41. Well that’s about it. The museum turned out to be much larger and more fun than we expected.

42. It was noon when we left the museum, and Stockholm no longer looked as deserted as it did in the morning hours. We wanted to have a good walk around before we left Stockholm, and I’ll leave that for the next part, soo, to be continued.

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