This is part of a series by Curator Dr Stephen Gapps who received an Endeavour Executive Fellowship from April to July 2016. Stephen is based at the Swedish History Museum and the National Maritime Museum (including the Vasa Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden. He is working on several Viking Age and other maritime history and archaeology related projects.
In early May this year I was privileged to be shown some of the recent conservation work being conducted on the iconic 17th century Swedish ship Vasa. The richly decorated and powerfully armed vessel, built between 1626 and 1628 for the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus, sank just a few minutes into its maiden voyage and lay on the bed of the busy Stockholm harbour for over 300 hundred years. In the 1950s when an amateur archaeologist located the wreck and Swedish navy salvage divers investigated, they found it was still very much intact, resting in the mud. An audacious, what was to be 40 year-long project of retrieving the wreck, conserving, housing and display began. It has proven to be an ongoing and challenging conservation project – far from over just yet.
But to display Vasa to the public, in conditions that would allow its conservation and preservation, a museum had to be specially built for it. In effect, this is a museum about one single object.
I’ve often been intrigued about how ‘single-object museums’ could ever work. And I’ve just as often been astounded by how they do. The Bayeux Tapestry is one of my favourites – a museum built around a single, albeit very long, tapestry from the late 11th century. I had seen images, read about it and felt I knew it back to front, but seeing it in the flesh was another thing. The same goes for Admiral Nelson’s famous flagship HMS Victory and the Tudor vessel Mary Rose – a similar maritime archaeology and conservation issue to Vasa.
Exactly what constitutes a ‘single-object museum’ is a moot point. In fact, Vasa itself is really a collection of carefully labelled individual artefacts – pieces and sections, held together only by modern conservation technologies, as well as some older shipwright’s methods. Most of the vessel’s hundreds of timbers are original, though some had to be added. Each one is an individual object, carefully documented and with its own, sometimes unique, preservation needs.
The Vasa Museum collection is complete – everything has been dug from the seabed, studied in detail, and it is doubtful any new objects will come to light. There is nothing more to be added, except perhaps archives of its own history.
But none of these ‘single object museums’ are really just one object. The ships in particular all have collections of material either found with the vessel or related to the object. And they have museum interpretation clustered all around them.
But the iconic object itself is still really the focus. It is the spectacle of scale. In the days of grand Gothic cathedral-like museums of the nineteenth century there was a faith in the power of an object to teach people about the past. Nowadays, museums general think of them as sites of story-telling.
But the power of the majestic object is still strong. Vasa pulls in the crowds like no other Swedish museum. There is a fascination with dragging up from the sea bed a ghostly, almost Flying Dutchman-like wreck, quite intact, dripping with mud, encrusted with age and – in its completeness – almost groaning out load with history. There is a fascination with both the ship as a time-capsule of history, as well as an archaeological and conservation process.
While the ‘single-object’ seems like a fascination with the large-scale, big picture of history – in fact it only succeeds because it is an object that has intimacy. That could be the intimacy of the unmediated, textured tapestry or the patina of wood. It could also an empathy for the people who lived and worked on the ship. It is the minutiae of daily life, the ability of the vessel and the artefacts preserved below its decks – not found important enough as some cannon, the main things that were salvaged at the time of the wreck – that live on to give us insights into the stratigraphy of social and economic hierarchy that was life in Europe nearly 400 years ago.
The ship, as a microcosm of society, offers a picture of all classes of people that set off in it, worked on its construction, or watched in disbelief as it sunk in Stockholm harbour. Somehow too, Vasa – as the iconic representation of what has long been regarded as Sweden’s ‘Age of Greatness’ (stormaktstiden) where under King Gustavus Adolphus Sweden became a prominent player in European politics and developed a large empire in the Baltic region – is a strange allegory of how such ‘greatness’ can fail within moments.
It has been argued that the main thing that attracts people to the Vasa Museum is the ‘royal ship’ as a representation of a lost age of greatness, and that this has been tied to a Swedish nationalist renaissance. But this idea of the Vasa Museum as a ‘temple’ to the royal ship is complicated by the fact that most of the visitors are from overseas and seem to be drawn by the lure of the mysterious shipwreck, and a fascination with its conservation, rather than any nostalgia for an imperial past.
The museum around the ship has various displays on its conservation, on shipboard life, construction, its role in war and others. There is a temporary exhibition, Meanwhile, which looks at what else was going on in the world at the time of Vasa, and there are plans to develop an exhibition on women who were on, or involved with, the ship.
Museum objects can fascinate because their meanings are shrouded in mystery. Even with the intervention of a narrative – a curator’s mediation of the object’s history – they hold an allure about their inaccessible origins in the past, about their relationship with the dead. Vasa is saturated with them.
When an object itself becomes a museum, what does this mean for the way we might usually experience the ‘foreignness’ of an object?
I’d love to know what you think. What would make your top-ten list of ‘single-object museums’? If there really is such a thing…
Dr Stephen Gapps, ANMM Curator at Large