Sweden’s newly opened Museum of Failure is strictly speaking not the first of its kind. Scandinavia’s most visited museum is literally built around a massive failure – the 17th Century Vasa Ship.

The battle ship Vasa was commissioned by a king who wanted the biggest and the fastest. King Gustav II Adolf, was at war on two fronts, and his newest battle ship was to leave for either Poland, or Germany. But his ship builder had never constructed a ship like this before. Vasa became so tall that the center of gravity was too far above water. Adding to this, the Captain, on this festive show off journey, left the gun ports opened. So in August 1628, only 1300 meters in on her maiden voyage, when a gust of wind pushed her over, water poured in through the gun ports and she immediately sank.

Luckily for us, the waters around Stockholm are cold and brackish, so 333 years later a salvaging crew found Vasa almost intact on the bottom of Stockholm harbour. The search for, and the salvage of Vasa, was the most talked about event in Sweden in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and the day she reached the surface again, the event was televised. She was so well preserved that she floated on her own when they towed her to shore.

Because Vasa never made it out of the harbour, not only are we given a rare opportunity

Ansikte mor ansikte, Vasamuseet

to see an actual ship of this kind in real life up close, we also get to find out about life on board. The archaeological excavation found a rich load of personal and everyday objects. When the ship went down most of the passengers were not soldiers but families of the men who had built Vasa and who were treated to the first trip. One of the passengers was a woman named Beata. In the upcoming exhibit at the Vasa Museum, named The Women, Beata gets to symbolize the women of the 17th century who, research has shown, were much more equal in importance to men, than women in the 18th and 19th Century. (Photo Credit: “Beata” by Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums).

The museum is not only about the ship and the 17th Century, it is about marine archaeology, technology and methods developed for preserving an organic object of this size. The decaying of the wood had been slowed by the water and the mud but exposed to air it can rapidly deteriorate. The first efforts to prepare and preserve the wood have been followed up by new methods and the Vasa Ship is an ongoing research project for preservation of this kind and scale. The museum has been built around her.

So in many ways, we can be thankful that the King had hubris and that his shipbuilder tried something never attempted before. We learn from our failures.

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is well worth a visit but until you can get there in person, the website is a very nice experience. Easy to navigate, uncluttered , educational, full of information, images and movie clips in 39 languages.

Text: Anna Larsson Berke, 2017 ©

Photo of the Vasa ship: Karolina Kristensson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums. Photo of Beata: Anneli Karlsson, the Swedish National Maritime Museums.