Just a few days back, Alex and I had the absolute pleasure to travel to Stockholm; the Scandinavian capital had been on my list for a while to complete the “Scandinavian Triumvirate” I had promised myself I would experienced before my PhD was over (mission success!). Stockholm was certainly a wonderful visit, and a lot of material that I will be sharing with you guys over the next few weeks/months/years/centuries 😉 will come from what I learnt there. But one of the things that certainly stuck with me and I value of this trip is the amazing museums I visited. You know, working in the heritage industry you get a thing for cool museums, but this has always been one of my obsessions: the public should simply have fun whilst exploring the past, art, or science, or whatever the hell you’re into. And the Swedes certainly know how to deliver. So today, I am going to just rant about how cool these places were, and what made them cool – and pictures of course.
One of the first things that already caught my attention when I was preparing the holiday was the abundance of museum in the city. Let’s face it, Stockholm is not a huge European capital, so I would never expect to find mini-London…but there were So Many Museums and Galleries!! There is an entire section of the city, east of the old town (Gamla Stockholm), that could be called museum miles if it wanted to. This is the area of the Djurganden – the Royal National Gardens. In our trip, time was tight, but I had decided that an entire day would probably go into exploring this area. So, in my selection of activities to do here, I included a visit to the Vasa, Vikingaliv, Skansen, and part 2 with the ABBA museum – would have love to do the Nordic museum (which is btw a gorgeous building far prettier than the Royal Palace?!) but as you all know Alex doesn’t get art and I was feeling generous. And what can I tell you just with those 4 examples? That Stockholm provides the best of old and new museology to the greatest standard.
Our first stop was the Vasa Museum, and I swear I have never seen anything quite like it. I am a seasoned traveller and an experienced historian, this was mind-blowing. The Vasa is this royal ship which was going to be the pride and joy of Gustav Vasa, and that due to many misfortunes (more about that a different day) sank on its first voyage 20 mins into its journey just outside of the port in Stockholm. A lot of people compare it to the Mary Rose – yeah, alright, you wished! The museum is built around the ship itself, with the actual boat inside the building as the central piece. It reminded me in that regards a bit to the Fram museum in Oslo, which we visited a couple of years back, and you can read about it here: https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/bygdoy-museums-in-oslo-4-exhibitions-in-1-day/
Without going into the history of the ship, what is great about this museum is the following: there are two huge auditoriums I didn’t even have time to enjoy fully where they put documentaries and videos explaining you different aspects of the ship and the archaeological and conservation work put into it. There are guided tours so incredibly often, and if there is not a tour you can buy an audio guide in pretty much every other language for a very affordable price. the audio guides seemed very thorough and detailed. The thing is, though, I struggled to not spend more than 2 hours there without a tour or an audio guide because there is simply so much information and so well exposed in the information panels and displays, which by the way are very modern and well presented, both in English and Swedish.
The museum has different floor levels dedicated to different aspects of the boat and seafaring so you can appreciate not only the actual ship for what it is but learn in the process. This is something that, for example, the Cuty Sark is missing, and the Mary Rose attempts to do, but due to the current work they can’t quite do, and it really brings the ship alive. There were also good stuff for the children too – not only activities to learn about the boat but little video game like interactive displays where you learnt about navigation and sea faring. I particularly enjoyed as well the recreated port where they tell you the story behind the sinking of the boat. In general, it is very engaging. This is something that is evident as well in Vikingaliv: technology reigns over displays. As you come into this modest sized museum, you find plenty of touch screens and video stands covering different aspects of Viking society.
There are a lot of things there to keep you entertained too such as a big board of hnefatalf – or more commonly known as Viking chess, helmets and weapons to try on. And what I found most amazing, an entire board dedicated to Viking Age research and latest archaeological and history news. But, of course, who could forget the ride? They have something similar to this in Jorvik. It is like a little train ride that tell you this saga story through which you discover different tensions of the Viking Age and its people. The models, images and sounds were really great and the story is very fitting – without it being any of the well-known sagas, it takes bits and bobs from all of them to give you a general picture of the Viking age. The museum is very much up to date and provides with the most up to date research, interviews and historiographical theories – some of which are still trying to catch on in places like the UK.
When you come out of a place like that and submerge yourself in the huge thing that is Skansen Open Air Museum, you can feel like you have walked through time. Not just because of the time period has changed, but because the museum concept is different. This was the very first open air museum in Europe. The purpose of places such as Skansen is to provide a picturesque idea of how society has changed throughout time by recreating buildings and other aspects of society. In Skansen you can find reenactors spinning, carving, even riding horse carts.
Skansen also contains a little zoo of animals typical of Sweden and other fun things like the little farm for children, an old timey funicular and a stage for ALL SANG: a very famous Swedish tradition of something like karaoke that gets film and played on the TV. In essence this is trying to represent like a compact version of Sweden in just the one site that comprises the culture, history and ecosystem of the country. This type of spaces were popular during the late 19th and early 20th century, but the displays have been kept up to date and the general condition of the park is remarkably good, which is important for a place of this type in order not to look out of date. But, as I am sure you are getting now from my recollections of Sweden, being up to date is something the Swedes know best, and this is perfectly exemplified by the ABBA museum – in case the others hadn’t convince you yet.
Even if you do not like ABBA, if you are in Stockholm, just go, because this is an experience, not just a visit. You are gonna spend around 20 pounds to get in, but you are gonna be there for 2 hours easily, and it is going to be worth every penny. This is one of the most interactive museums I have ever been to. Not only you have several displays with ABBA memorabilia, costumes, records, etc, there is a lot of audio-visual information as well – from video to sound, this screams 21st century.
On top of that, it is fun! I found myself mixing ABBA music, singing and dancing, performing (quite badly) for an audition to become the 5th member of the group with holograms of the band right by me, whilst learning a ridiculous amount about music, ABBA and Sweden. I cannot explain with words how sincerely fun, new and great this museum is. The gift shop is also great: it is small but it has all the right type of souvenirs and very fairly priced. And, just to top it off, as we went in, they do have a small space dedicated to temporary exhibitions. My luck was that they had there the guitars that made the history of rock, and on top of hearing amazing stories about these instruments and the musical pieces that made the legends, I got to play guitar hero cause why not?!
So, what has become apparent from my experience in Stockholm is that, in Sweden, museums are believed to be fun: and they are! More importantly, this is what museums should be; cool, interesting places where you learn and enrich yourself as a person through an engaging experience that aids your learning. Move past the antiquarian cabinets and dry lines of text telling you “here be a sword from the 6th century” and actually take them closer to people. Another example that tops it off for me was the kids room in the History Museum (which is free btw).
This room was not just a play room, but a space for learning. There is a huge section which is like a sandbox where copies of artefacts are hidden so the kids can dig them up and then put them on the displays and tell the stories of said objects and learn in the process with the books – and audio books/stories – that you can find not just in this room but across the museum. Tell me when was the last time your children had that much fun and hands-on interaction in a museum? Cause I do not recall.
So, wrapping it up – you want to see good museums, for a more than fair price and genuinely learn the most up to date information on the subject whilst having fun? Go To Stockholm.