Stockholm is special in many ways, but one of my favourite things about this city is the ‘museum island’ it harbours at its heart. Only a boat ride from Slussen away, Djurgården is the location of some of Stockholm’s most unusual and unique museums. There is the restored sunken ship (Vasa Museum), the fairy tale castle (Nordiska Museet) and the traditional Swedish village (Skansen museum). And of course, there’s also the overpriced ABBA museum, a true piece of Swedish heritage. At the risk of disappointing many (please, no hate mail), I will not write about the latter.
A Swedish fairy tale castle
The Nordiska Museet is a romantic castle right out of the pages of a fairy-tale. It was dreamt up 142 years ago by its founder, Arthur Hazelius, a Swedish scholar and folklorist who also founded Skansen. As you enter its main doors you are greeted by the gargantuan and regal figure of Gustav Vasa, the ‘founder of the Swedish nation’. There begins a three-floor journey through the cultural history of Sweden, from 1500s onwards. Exhibitions include finely painted folk art (including several grandfather clocks – a piece of furniture that I am strangely and wholeheartedly in love with), recreated cottages and state bedrooms. Perhaps the most noteworthy of all is an exhibit on Swedish fashion throughout the years. Did you know Swedish nobility was prohibited from wearing foreign luxury items? This rule was instilled not only to protect national wealth but also to encourage simplicity over extravagance. A law that would have outraged but maybe also spared the excess-loving French court from Madame guillotine!
A sunken ship
The Vasa Museum is quite easy to find. As you leave the ferry you may notice a building in the distance with three masts upon its roof. This specially built museum holds a unique treasure – the 69 meter long Vasa warship, otherwise known as the ship that took minutes to sink and 333 years to resurface. It took me a year to finally make that pilgrimage. Why? Is it because I feel uninspired by random ancient ships displayed in empty buildings? Or is it maybe because the word ‘conservation’ makes me yawn? Don’t make the same mistake. Go there next weekend! Your jaw will most certainly drop when you witness the 17th century craftsmanship which has gone into the building of this heavily sculpted ship, and the 20th century ingenuity and science which has gone into preserving it. There are also exhibits all around the ship which narrate various chapters of its history. There is the tragicomic sinking of 1628 – the most powerfully armed vessel of the time brought down by a light breeze. There is the later recovery of 1961 –astounding museum goers with the sheer manpower, determination and ingenuity that went into its retrieval. My favourite is the Face to Face exhibit, which focuses on the victims of this infamous tragedy. When the ship was excavated, about 15,000 human bones were found. Osteological, archaeological but also a lot creative guess work has gone into recreating the identity of 15 individuals who, once fated to be lost at sea, are now forever preserved in time.
A statuesque island.
Another aspect of Stockholm I cherish, and something I could probably write pages and pages about (beware!) is the abundance of statues that decorates its grounds. Djurgården is no exception! Whilst some of them give me creepiness-induced chills, such as the Untitled (Standing Man) by the ABBA museum; others tug at my nostalgic heartstrings such as the lovely Astrid Lindgren statue by Junibacken. The most compelling statue of all lies in the heart of the Galley Shipyard Cemetery (Galärvarvskyrkogården). Among the graves of those countless lives lost at sea is a peaceful garden. The artist, Askenström conceived the quietly powerful ‘Livsträdet’ (The Tree of Life) at its centre. A bronze and copper tree springs from the waters of the fountain as albatrosses, symbols of sailors’ lost souls, perch on its branches. It is a poetic testimony to the lives lost to the volatile sea. This easily overlooked small garden may be my favourite spot on the island.
PS. What is the deal with the fika tram I keep seeing around the island? Where does it leave from? Where is it going? And if I climb aboard, will my pursuit of happiness finally be over?