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The Vasa Museum: A Failure Turned Success

Inspiring engineering successes turned spectacular failures. Many nations have them. Germany had the Hindenburg. England had the Titanic. And Sweden had the Vasa, which, despite not being a household name worldwide, was no less a deadly failure than the other two.

In 1625, King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden ordered a new fleet of warships to be built. He wanted a towering, terrifying fleet to show off Sweden’s glory, since their might was often overshadowed by their neighbours, particularly the Danes. This king, like most kings, was used to getting what he wanted, at the expense of the heads of whoever stood against him. So, when he ordered that the Vasa be taller and hold more cannons, no one stood against him.

The Vasa

The Vasa's bow. It reminded me of a swordfish from this angle.

There were no designs for this ship that was being made ever taller and ever more top-heavy with cannons. In those days, shipwrights worked solely off of measurements; so, even if the ship’s head shipwright hadn’t died part of the way through construction, he may not have seen the danger of adding more height to the ship.

In any case, the Vasa was completed in 1628 and most of Stockholm lined the city’s islands to watch its glorious maiden voyage. One person noted that the ship seemed to heel over even in a small breeze, but it wasn’t enough to raise any alarm.

Rigging for the Vasa

The Vasa required kilometers of rigging, much of which was never used.

It was only when that small breeze got slightly stronger and caused the entire ship to pitch over that people realised something was seriously wrong…but by then it was too late. Soon it was taking on water through the gun ports and it very quickly sank, only 1.3km from where it started. Everyone watched in horror as sailors, women, and children tried to save themselves. Over 30 of them died.

Searches for the Vasa started about 30 years after it sank. Albrecht von Treileben eventually located its cannons by sending divers down in metal bells. However, that was all that was salvaged until nearly 300 years later, when a very delicate operation spanning 6 years brought the Vasa back to the surface once more.

The Vasa Museum From Outside

The Vasa Museum from outside.

The drydock that it was placed on, located on Djurgården Island, is now the location of the Vasa museum. This museum is Sweden’s most visited, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting each year to gawk at the ship’s enormous bulk. Amazingly, the ship is in fantastic condition, which you wouldn’t expect from a ship that spent 300 years underwater. This is because the Baltic Sea is home to very few teredos worms, which would have destroyed the wood. Instead, the underwater aging process turned the oak into bog oak, which is now an incredibly expensive building material.

The Vasa is certainly an impressive ship, and I spent quite a while looking at it from all angles — from the front, behind, underneath, and above. I’m sure there are even more vantage points that we didn’t find, but I’m also certain there is one vantage point that isn’t available — from on board. Apparently the Vasa used to be open for anyone to play on, which couldn’t have been good for the boat!

I actually found all of the extras around the Vasa were the highlight of my visit. While the ship is definitely mind-boggling to look at, all of the small details really bring to light the intrigue around the ship.

The Vasa's Stern

The Vasa's towering stern. Sorry for the noise in the photo -- I forgot to take my flash!

On the wall behind the ship hang colourful recreations of what the carvings on the back of the ship used to look like. They were garish and featured a lot of ugly cherubs and the like, but they certainly would have caught the eye of passersby.

I loved the map of the world according to maritime might on one of the walls. It really brought to light the sheer number of ships that some nations had in the 1600s.

Downstairs lie the bones of many of the victims, including some children whose skeletons show evidence of severe malnourishment. I found all of their stories to be very sad, and the recreations of faces to be incredibly creepy!

The Map of Maritime Might

The map of maritime might in the 1600s.

In one corner of the museum we found a 10-minute movie that promised to shed more light on the trials of various people involved with the ship — trials that were supposed to find someone on which to place the blame. We learned more from the exhibits outside the theater, but it was worth the 10 minutes just for the laughs. During the video, various portraits were illuminated, a swinging lantern on the roof appeared, and funny voices were used. To top it off, they had all this leadup telling us about everyone’s alibis, and then they said, “And in the end, no one was charged.” Suddenly, the back doors opened; we felt like they were pointing and saying “GET OUT!” without giving us a proper conclusion to the story.

The Vasa museum has turned what was a spectacular failure into a rousing success, and it’s a great way to spend a few hours while you’re in Stockholm (especially if the weather outside is less than ideal)!

The Vasa museum (Vasamuseet) is open year-round (with the exception of March 18-April 30 this year, when it is closed for renovations). The hours in winter were generally 10am-5pm. Tickets cost 130kr.

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