Stockholm loves a museum. Walking around the central suburbs of the city, it seems like you can’t go more than a block without passing a stately building housing a museet of some kind. There is even a free tourist map detailing Stockholm’s museums that lists no less than 84 options such as the Postal Museum, the Toy Museum, Museum of Spirits, The Tobacco and Match Museum and something called Tom Tits Experiment (I kid you not!).
While we both appreciate a good museum we are not huge museum-goers, and after visiting a number of them in Helsinki, Tallinn and Oslo we had little desire at the end of this part of our journey to see another one. Just like temple fatigue can set in while travelling around Asia, museum mortis is certainly a risk in Europe (and don’t get me started about churches). However several people recommended the Vasa Museum as a Stockholm highlight and it sounded very interesting, so we checked it out today. I can testify that it’s well worth the hype, and now ranks as one of the best museum experiences I’ve ever had.
The dry facts of the Vasa are impressive enough, but when you first walk into the cavernous museum space and see the ship towering above you it’s quite breathtaking. Commissioned in 1625 as one of four new warships for the Swedish fleet – then at war with Poland and others – it was launched in 1628. But its maiden voyage lasted for just 20 minutes before the ship tipped over in a breeze and started taking water through its gun ports, which caused it to sink into the mud of Stockholm’s harbour. There it lay for 333 years until it was finally raised again and revealed to be in a remarkable state of preservation.
The Vasa Museum was purpose-built on the garden island of Djurgarden just a short stroll from the city centre, and its modern and sometimes interactive displays give a real sense of what life must have been like on board. We arrived just in time for one of the three daily English-language guided tours which in a rather entertaining way told the story of the ship, and also placed it in its historical context. We thought we would only be there for a fairly short time, but before we knew it three hours had passed and it was time to leave.
Taking 400 people about 2.5 years to build, the Vasa is 69 metres long and bloody tall when viewed from the keel – it’s simply enormous to behold. The level of detail is astonishing, even more so as it was built in a rush to have it added to the Swedish fleet as soon as possible so it could fight in the war against Poland. As someone with a passing interest in technology, the scale of this ship is magnificent when you consider it was designed and built almost four centuries ago. It’s state of preservation is phenomenal which allows a real appreciation of the craftsmanship involved. The Vasa’s sinking was due to a design flaw in that it was too narrow for its height, which meant the centre of gravity was too high for good stability. Its sister ship, Apple, was very similar but just one metre wider which made all the difference; it was in service for more than 30 years and became the most successful warship in the Swedish Navy of the time.
From a sea of museum choices, giving the Vasa a shot was one of the best things we could have done on our last full day in Stockholm. We’re ready to move on in our journey now, and Malaysia beckons loudly, but this was a highlight well worth remembering.