STOCKHOLM – We thought the Vasa Museum would be a way to spend an hour or two before lunch. Seriously, how long can you look at a hunk of junk that arguably is the most failed royal warship in history?
Six hours later we heard the last call for the gift shop. My wife, Michelle, and I hustled in for a book for the coffee table, a hatpin for our travel flag, and pamphlets for our boys. Two years later, we went back and were transfixed for many more hours. The life of the Vasa was short. Our fascination with it is endless.
“The Swedes themselves weren’t really sure how popular it would be,” Emma Hocker, the museum’s conservator, said. “They originally projected maybe 600,000 people a year. We’ve hit 1.2 million visitors. No one anticipated the interest.”
No one could have expected the fascination with an object that simultaneously represents 17th-century folly by a king, 20th-century rediscovery by a shipwreck hobbyist, and a 21st-century high-tech race by scientists against rot and acid.
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The Vasa Museum, which opened in 1990, pulls off the rare trick of waging everything on one solitary object. It logged its 30 millionth visitor in 2011, becoming, according to the city, the most visited museum in Scandinavia.
The Vasa was commissioned in 1625 by King Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632). Sweden fancied itself a major power at the time, warring for Baltic supremacy with Denmark, Russia, and Poland. To show who was boss, Gustav Adolf had a ship built that could fire from the broadside with unprecedented firepower. It had two gun decks, totaling 64 cannons and 80 tons of artillery.
The ship, named after the royal house that began consolidating modern Sweden in the 1520s, was adorned at the stern with hundreds of brightly painted wood sculptures of lions, mermaids, angels, devils, birds, snakes, Gothic griffins, Roman emperors, and Greek gods. It was “a throng of figures and motifs from mythology, the Bible and antiquity,” according to the book “The Vasa: The Royal Ship,” by Lars-Ake Kvarning and Bengt Ohrelius (Atlantis, 1998).
The ship was so heavily armed and ornamented it took three years to build. Its launch on Aug. 10, 1628, brought out many of Stockholm’s then 10,000 inhabitants. It was such a celebratory moment that some of the wives and children of the more than 100 crew members were allowed on board to enjoy the first short portion of the maiden voyage. Other citizens were in rowboats and small sailboats to cheer the Vasa into action.
Guns were fired, the ship put up its sails. It was off . . . for 4,300 feet.
As “The Vasa” recounts, the moment the ship caught the winds of the open bay it began keeling over.“Water began rushing in through the open gun-ports. The list increased even further until the Vasa’s railing was in the water. Its moment of destiny had come. Just off Beckholmen, it 8 went to the bottom – at full sail, flags and all.” Of 150 people onboard, about 30 died.
The sinking embarrassed the nation but a trial could find no singular person guilty. The dominoes of decisions that led to the disaster hold so much global fascination that it remains a modern case study for students at such institutions as the Harvard Business School.
Once the Vasa sank, she lay on the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor. Salvage operators of the 17th century brought up guns and other objects, but the bulk of the hulk remained about 100 feet down for 328 years until the shipwreck enthusiast Anders Franzen brought up a piece of oak timber in a handmade core sampler made from a carpenter’s punch pipe. He asked diver Per Edvin Falting to go down and check out the site.
In an interview with the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology the year before his 1993 death, Franzen said Falting telephoned him from underwater to say he was “standing up to his chest in mud and could see and feel nothing. However he managed to move just a little and felt the side of a ship.
“He climbed up it and felt a square hole. Then he stood on the lip of this hole and saw another the same up to its right. Then I understood it was a three-decked vessel that was lying down there with two covered cannon decks that Per Edvin had felt, and then I was fairly sure that it must be the Vasa we had found.”
They quickly realized the wreck was far from wrecked. The hull was in stunningly good condition because the low oxygen and the frigid, brackish quality of the harbor’s waters were a poor environment for voracious wood shipworms.
In 1959, the ship was carefully brought up into more shallow water to be reinforced for the final lift, which occurred to national celebration in 1961. Fifteen skeletons and thousands of artifacts were found, well preserved in the sea bottom’s “two meters of thick, semi-liquid sludge,” according to Franzen.
So much was preserved that one can spend hours not looking at the ship at all. There are many side exhibits on several floors ranging from re-creations of life in 1628 to the ongoing molecular science needed to retard the deterioration that is eating at the ship despite the protective coatings.
Hocker gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the modern battles. Hidden to visitors, the ship is wired to 42 climate and temperature sensors. The Vasa is so heavy, 800 to 1,000 tons, that it is slowly crushing its keel. Special cradles and geodetic monitoring have been employed to slow the warping. The climate control system has to keep humidity and temperature just right. The museum, which was remodeled last year to accommodate the wave of visitors, is always dark.
A decade ago, there were major white and yellow salt outbreaks, a result of the three centuries when the wood absorbed iron underwater from the bolts, cannonballs, and sulfur from bacteria.
The result is the breaking down of the wood’s cellulose. According to a 2012 study by researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology and Uppsala University, the wood is half its strength since it was salvaged. “It’s a huge problem,” Hocker said.“It’s so concentrated and locked so deep into the wood, we don’t know how we can reach that acid.”
One of the museum’s blogs says the Vasa is “more or less in the hands of an elaborate life support system for survival.” The good news is that the half-century of life support is far longer than its only voyage. In Sweden’s twist on the assumption that history is written by the victors, the Vasa is testament to what can happen when a nation decides to exhume the lessons of defeat.