I knew nothing of Swedish history, but after visiting these museums, I have a firmer grasp on how much I don’t know.
The Vasa was an elaborately constructed military ship. It sunk in Stockholm’s harbor during its maiden voyage in 1628 because it was unbalanced and top-heavy. Water flooded into the cannon openings. Most people jumped off the ship, but some were unable to escape and drowned. A meeting was convened over the incident, and in stereotypical laid-back Swedish fashion, it was determined that no one was at fault.
Somehow, despite sinking right in the harbor, people forgot where the ship sank. No one marked the location or anything of the sort. But in 1961, the ship was recovered. Thousands of pieces were painstakingly attached back together. The ship has been chemically treated and is constantly moistened to prevent it from rotting and splintering.
Swedish History Museum
Despite the association between Swedes and vikings, only a small minority of Swedes were vikings. Most were farmers. Also, viking helmets did not have horns on them. The horns were added later when the viking was transformed into a symbol of nationalist pride.
Medieval Swedes were extremely vain. People of all social classes acquired jewelry and clothes to show off. Women proudly wore their key(s) on the outside of their clothing. The key opened closets, doors, and cupboards, symbolic of their running the household. The museum has a “gold room” with display after display of gold, imported and crafted coins, bracelets, necklaces, crowns. The collection is large because the government allocates funds to purchase antique metalwork.
In the courtyard, reenactors demonstrated medieval breadmaking and games. There was a personality quiz to determine which Norse mythological figure you were most like, such as Thor or Loki. I got Balder, a friendly chap most notable for dying from mistletoe.
One exhibit discussed the inherent bias in any museum. With a collection too big to display in its entirety, what gets shown? And who writes these narratives? How are the artifacts grouped together? Since Sweden as a country did not exist in the past, how should its history be explained?
The Swedish Army Museum details the armed conflicts that took place in the country from medieval times up to World War II. Upon entering, there is a red room full of skulls and a diorama of fighting monkeys, suggesting that violence is part of human nature. Throughout the museum, there are dioramas of citizens, soldiers, men charging on horseback, the impoverished cooking, starving in snow.
I was drawn to the trophy banners and pennants. The designs were amazing. For example, there was a blue Russian banner with a golden two-headed bird with crowns, except the shield had a saint instead of a man on a horse. The bannermen would protect these flags with their lives. The capture of a banner was demoralizing to the group to whom it belonged, and anyone who captured an opposing force’s banner would be rewarded.