The Vasa Museum is billed as one of Stockholm’s best, and the Vasa has the distinction of being the best preserved Viking ship in the world. Those were our expectations when we entered the airplane-hangar-sized, one-room museum, and as lofty as those expectations were, the museum and ship exceeded them.
Erin and I were unaware of the Vasa’s ultimate sailing fate when we arrived, and somehow we missed the initial exhibit describing the ship’s history when we first entered. That is to say, we didn’t read the beginning of the story until the end. If you don’t know how the ship’s sea-going life ended, I encourage you not to skip right to the end of this post, and you’ll be in for the same surprise we were.
Highlights of the Vasa Museum
The Vasa itself, of course
The sole reason for visiting this museum, obviously the well-preserved 17th-century ship tops the list of highlights. When researchers were finally able to salvage the ship from the water, the hull was almost entirely intact. Some of the masts were also discovered, the remaining pieces were either reattached or replaced, and the result is a near-perfect (and nearly original) Viking ship from the early 1600’s.
The ship is housed in a massive room that pretty much makes up the entire museum, with viewing platforms of varying heights surrounding it. What’s most difficult to comprehend is the sheer enormity of the ship. I’ll tell you that it’s nearly 70 meters (230 feet) long and over 50 meters (170 feet) high at its tallest point, but you have to stand next to it to really feel the accomplishment of building something so large 300 years ago.
The Crew Life Exhibit
I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a crew member. According to the museum’s exhibit, being a sailor during the 17th-century was a good way to have a bad life. A crew member aboard a ship such as the Vasa was plagued by malnutrition, cramped living and sleeping quarters, strict punishments (for example, injuring another crew member meant being killed, and saying something negative about the Captain subjected you to being dragged under the boat), extreme boredom, and of course, actual plague. And if you find all of that to be manageable, you also have to avoid dying in a sea battle, which is the reason for the Vasa’s existence in the first place.
The Battle at Sea Exhibit
This interesting exhibit described how a sea battle goes down. It included what commands were given, and in what order, providing a kind of step-by-step guide of how commandeering another ship should work, if you’re successful. Some of the commands conjured up images of Pirates of the Caribbean (Board the [opposing] ship!), while others were quite a bit less family-friendly (for example, the order to wound but not kill the enemy was often given, because the wounded had to be cared for, thus removing a healthy soldier from battle as well). If all goes the well for your ship, the general order of things usually goes like this: approach, load the cannons, fire the cannons, board the other ship, and take down their flags, with a few other steps in between.
The Vasa was perhaps the most formidable battle ship of its era. It was tall, allowing for an advantageous position to fire on an opposing ship, and it could carry more artillery than any other ship on the seas. She was made for battle.
The Recovered Skeletons Exhibit
Researches found the skeletons of roughly 15 sailors who died aboard the Vasa, some of them nearly intact. The museum put the skeletons back together, made educated guesses at to each’s profession and status based on items found with them and injuries to their bones and teeth, gave them names, and even used facial reconstruction technology to produce an image of what the person might have looked like. The result is a set of very realistic, believable biographies of people who lived 300 years ago.
Now, the Beginning of the Story…
The Vasa is an amazing sight to behold, and with all the stories provided in the various exhibit’s it must have been a pretty amazing ship for 17th-century Sweden, right? Well maybe.
Except that it sank just 1 mile into its maiden voyage. Because of wind.
See, the Vasa was one of the most formidable ships in battle due to it’s height and ability to carry heavy artillery, but these same traits contributed to a lack of stability. Despite warnings signs of trouble, the ship was put out to sea without modification, and promptly tipped over. Pretty disappointing, isn’t it?
I don’t think learning about the Vasa in this order ruins the experience. In fact, I think it makes it funnier, if anything. First, you are amazed by this powerful ship, and drawn into forming images in your mind of its successes and spoils. Then, you are informed that it never did any of those things. It basically sank itself before it even left the harbor. Oops.
Still pretty amazing to look at, though.
What do you think of the Vasa’s story? Do you find it as humorous as I do?
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