The King has ordered the construction of the largest and most powerful warship in the world. The crowds, like colonies of ants, swarm over the cobbled quays around the harbour in Stockholm as the ship sets sail on its maiden voyage. The atmosphere is electric with excitement as the crowds gasp in awe at the scale of the ship towering over them, akin to a modern cruise liner today, with rich carving from the lions on the bow to the royal coat of arms on the stern. Surely this was the most impressive ship in the world, just as three centuries later, there were similar thoughts about another ship which, one day was apparently unsinkable, the next was holed by an iceberg and fell quickly down to the bottom of the Atlantic.
This ship, the Vasa, never even made it out of the harbour. Once the stays that held it upright were released, the winds and the tides conspired with the gods and, within a remarkably short time, the magnificent ship had rolled over to lie at the bottom of the harbour. So fast was its demise, that not all of the seamen had time to escape and several lost their lived, entombed in the timbers of the ship for over three centuries.
The date was 1628, and the ship had been commissioned by King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden. Many theories have been put forward for its sinking, primarily that its designers had created a vessel that was too top heavy, driven by pleasing the King. A more recent theory has suggested that this may have been compounded by something as simple as different workmen using different measuring rulers so that the timber of one half of the ship were thicker than the other. Apparently rulers found on the ship have included both Amsterdam feet and Swedish feet, which where half an inch different.
The modern story of the Vasa is its discovery and raising as an intact ship from the silt of the harbour, to now be displayed in the simple dark barn of the museum in Stockholm. It is an astonishing achievement and the warship is an amazing work of art – no expense had been spared in the carving of the timberwork on the exterior, carried out by the best craftsmen of the day.
There are three stories to the museum – the building and design of the ship; its capsizing and its discovery and raising several centuries later. The centrepiece of the museum is the ship itself and galleries around it tell some of these other stories plus other themes such as the people who were involved in the ship and who died on it, with displays of ceramics, cannons, clothing and other material which the harbour silt had protected over the years.
More could be made of these themes, any one of which is fascinating in its own right. Perhaps it is time for the museum to rethink the supporting exhibitions and introduce more interaction, more drama and more immersive experiences, though it has made a few steps in this regard. The current exhibitions are factually interesting, but are generally passive and, in terms of museum design, are now outdated with the availability of new interactive museum techniques.
The star at the heart of the museum, the Vasa, is breath-taking. Much more could be made of the astonishing stories that surround the warship with its construction, design and sinking in the 17th century and its discovery and raising in the 20th. Given also that the museum is located on the edge of the harbour, more could be done to improve its connections with the harbour and perhaps berth a few more historic ships as part of the museum complex.