Preserved, But For How Long?
Three museums celebrate Sweden's maritime heritage. Two are in Stockholm, and the third, the Naval Museum, is in Karlskrona on the south coast, famous as the location of the grounding of the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine W-137 in 1981. Of these, by far the most extraordinary and unusual is the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.
The Vasa, the largest and most powerful warship of her time, was to be the royal flagship of the Swedish Navy, symbolizing the power of King Gustavus Adolphus, whose family name was Vasa. Unfortunately, the Vasa sank in front of a large crowd in Stockholm Harbor barely 20 minutes after getting underway on her initial voyage. After 333 years on the bottom, she was raised in 1961. Today, the hull rests on blocks in a hall built specifically to house her. This most-visited museum in Scandinavia displays the only almost fully intact 17th-century ship ever salvaged.
Built in the shipyard in Stockholm, she got under way on 10 August 1628, firing a salute after clearing her berth. Both the main and topsails were set in spite of a freshening wind. The ship heeled once and righted, but on the next gust and heeling, water entered the open lower gun-deck ports, and the ship keeled over and sank.
Responsibility for the catastrophe was never fully established. The designer and original builder, Henrik Hybertsson, an experienced Dutch shipbuilder, died while the ship was still on the stocks. He and his relief were both cleared by a royal inquiry. Because the ship was to sail unloaded to her home port, where ammunition, supplies, and people were to be shipped aboard, she was light overall and her stone ballast was probably marginal.
The king, however, had insisted on arming the ship with heavy guns on both gun decks rather than using lighter cannon on the upper deck. Thus, the Vasa was undoubtedly top heavy. Opening the lower-deck gun ports just a few feet above the waterline opened the path for flooding. Finally, too much sail for the existing wind finished off the chain of errors that led to the sinking. With the King fighting a war in Poland, the royal wrath did not find an easy target.
The Vasa fell into obscurity after most of her cannon were salvaged in the 17th century. She was located again in the late 1950s and salvaged largely intact 11 years later. Fortuitously, the seabed environment helped preserve the ship. Because the waters of the Baltic are very brackish, the shipworms that normally devour wooden ships are absent. Also, until the late 20th century, Stockholm's harbor was heavily polluted. Even the toughest microorganisms that break down wood could not survive in the oxygen-deficient toxic environment.
When the Vasa's exhibit hall was completed over an old dry dock, the hull was floated onto the blocks, the dock emptied, and the gates permanently closed. The lower masts were set into place and rigged inside the hall, while above the roof, extensions of the masts were raised to complete the restoration.
The commodious structure not only shelters the hull but also provides large spaces around it for a series of exhibitions depicting 17th-century life on board ships, in the shipyards, and in Stockholm. Walkways around the ship allow visitors close examination of the reconstructed lower rigging, complete with masts, stays, and shrouds; close to 500 figurines and statues adorning the hull and stern castle; and the magnificently restored transom. Most impressive are a miniature model of the shipyard area with the buildings, housing, and ships on the stocks and a full-scale replica of a planking saw cradle.
To prevent the drying and subsequent splitting of the wooden hull, the water absorbed by the wood over the years had to be replaced with a filler, the preservative PEG (polyethyleneglycol). For 17 years, the Vasa was sprayed with the preservative, of which the hull absorbed about 50 tons. However, what the pollution of Stockholm's harbor had helped preserve, it is now taking away. Pollution bacteria had converted sulfur compounds in the sludge into hydrogen sulfide. Once raised, that chemical, absorbed in the Vasa's woodwork, reacted with atmospheric oxygen to produce sulfuric acid. Efforts to limit the destructiveness of this threat are in progress, but no solution is in sight.
While the Vasa Museum continues to spearhead research in preservation and restoration of wooden objects, there is no guarantee that this unique specimen of maritime history can be preserved forever.
The Vasamuseet at Galarvarvsvagen 14 on the Stockholm waterfront is open every day with seasonal hours except 23-25 December and 1 January. Summer hours are 0830-1800, and other seasons from 1000-1700, except Wednesdays, when it remains open until 2000. Adult admission is 110 krona, about $15.50.