Vrak – The Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm: Maritime Sweden 5

January 2024

In this episode we visit Vrak – The Museum of Wrecks in Stockholm. Nowhere else in the world are there as many well-preserved wooden wrecks as there are in the Baltic Sea. People have lived on the shores of the Baltic ever since the end of the Ice Age, where they have travelled, sailed, hunted and waged war, for millennia. The Baltic has special water conditions: it is cold and brackish and has low oxygen levels, which means there is no shipworm to destroy sunken timber. As a result, at the bottom of the Baltic is an exceptional collection of timber heritage sites, from the Stone Age to the Vikings and beyond. Vrak – The Museum of Wrecks is a contemporary museum designed to explore and share this heritage in innovative ways.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast and to this our fourth episode in our mini series on the maritime history of Sweden. So far we’ve heard about Sweden’s naval history since 1500, how it influences contemporary defence thinking. We’ve heard about Swedish Vikings travelling to Arab lands, we’ve been on a tour of Stockholm National Maritime Museum, we’ve heard all about Frederik Henrik af Chapman, the grandfather of naval architecture, and today we’re at another museum, the fantastic Vrak, the Museum of Wrecks. Nowhere else in the world have as many well preserved wooden wrecks as there are in the Baltic; people have lived on the shores of the Baltic ever since the end of the Ice Age, that’s close to 10,000 years ago. People have travelled, sailed, hunted and waged war there for millennia. Now, importantly, the Baltic has special water conditions. It’s cold and brackish and has low oxygen levels, which means there is no ship worm, there is no Teredo Novalis, which means in turn that timber structures survive in exceptional condition. And we’re not just talking about wrecked ships, but Stone Age settlements, ship barriers from the Viking and mediaeval periods and remnants of ports and industries. This all constitutes a cultural heritage shared with all of the people who live around the Baltic Sea. This museum embraces that heritage and resource and tells the stories with the help of digital technology leaving the wrecks on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The museum is on the waterfront at Stockholm overlooking the ancient port, lively maritime traffic, a wonderful place to be. And to find out more, I sat down with Susanna Vallejos from the museum.

    Sam Willis
    I’m sitting in the staff area, I love going behind the scenes in museums, I’m in the staff area having a lovely cup of tea with Susanna. And I’ve just been looking around this fabulous, fabulous place. Tell me about your museum, and when did the idea originate? What’s the big mission.

    Susanna Vallejos
    So first of all, thank you for having me, I think this is a treat, to be able to be on Mariners Mirror, and to chat with you about this. So this museum is called Vrak Museum of Wrecks.. And so it’s actually mixing both Swedish and English. And the reason behind that is that we’re not just looking at what is the cultural heritage within the national borders of Sweden, but what’s beneath the entire Baltic Sea region. And so the idea for this, my understanding is that it developed about six, seven years ago. The initial people involved in the project are not involved with it anymore, but the idea was to expand what we are working with in Sweden, in the maritime museums of Sweden. You might be familiar with the Vasa Museum.

    Sam Willis
    I was there this morning.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Great. So that’s where I used to work as well. So the Vasa museum is a sister museum. And I would say that the project helped establish maritime archaeology in Sweden, and obviously has been significant and important internationally as well. But I feel it’s led to people associating maritime archaeology with just Vasa, especially here in the Baltic, even though there are 1000s of other wrecks that tell many other different stories.

    Sam Willis
    And it’s an international problem as well actually, being able to tell the story of all of those wrecks.

    Susanna Vallejos
    And so we were just trying to show that there’s so much more, and I think that’s perfectly how this thing grew. Because the conditions in the water here are obviously phenomenal; very few other places have the sort of the conditions that we have here.

    Susanna Vallejos
    So let’s talk about that for a moment, why are they so good?

    Susanna Vallejos
    Well, for one we don’t have a ship worm, the organism that drills holes into wood and destroys organic material, which means that we have well preserved organic material in these waters, materials that you wouldn’t find on land or in other places. And so suddenly we have a cultural heritage or remains that people are not used to seeing; they are here but because it’s beneath the surface it’s invisible. And I think it’s a shame, we’re trying to do something about it by simply taking people beneath the surface and showing them that there is so much more just around the corner, just outside their buildings, just outside of the museum doors. And that there’s more than a 17th century ship, even though that is amazing and it’s 98% original. There are more than just that one.

    Sam Willis
    Sure. And one of the interesting things, the two really interesting things here, one is you talk about the whole range of history in the Baltics. So it goes back to the the earliest use of boats, which I think is wonderful. And the other one is the the amazing use of technology; you do things here which I’ve never seen anywhere else. So let’s just talk about the period first and the length of the story of Baltic seafaring that you’re telling.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Yes, so here we go back 7000 years to the Stone age, and we move forward up until today. I think that one of the earliest most modern examples that we exhibit is a ferry that sank in 1994. So suddenly everything is fair game. In a sense we’re able just to talk about the things that we live or exist with and use in our daily lives in the present. So I think that it is easier for people to connect to it, because they can clearly see these items in their daily lives. But also, we go back all the way to the Stone age when dugouts were used, so various different kinds of modes of transportation are displayed. But we’re also trying to look beyond these modes of transportation and also show other sorts of things, just settlements, just items that people might have lost while travelling on water, or just the variation of remains that tell us something about the human activity and people’s relationship to the Baltic to the sea, to each other.

    Sam Willis
    Well there might be a really interesting bit at the beginning with the container sinking, and you can see the boxes falling out of the container ship. So that’s not necessarily a ship wreck, but it’s still scattering items on the floor of the Baltic. I love the idea of people losing things over a ship.

    Susanna Vallejos
    And I love the fact that things have been here for so long that a few of us have been aware of and suddenly it dawns on people that their immediate world right here is so much better than they can imagine. And so we’re trying to visualise that space underwater. In the first two exhibitions of the museum, on the bottom floor, there the theme is underwater or beneath the sea, basically. So you get to hear the Baltic speaking or sharing parts of its history. And then we have another exhibition that focuses a little bit more on one specific shipwreck that sank in the 1660s called the Travelling Man. And there you also get to immerse yourself in the story using these modern methods that I feel are really innovative, that I haven’t seen used in many other places.

    Sam Willis
    I haven’t, so they’re holograms essentially.

    Susanna Vallejos
    And so instead of raising artefacts or entire ships and displaying them on land, conserving them and having to manage all the material, we are instead documenting underwater and bringing that knowledge up to the surface and then using that to create other ways of experiencing the artefacts while still fulfilling our role as a museum, still documenting, doing research, comparing, but just doing it slightly differently.

    Sam Willis
    it shows the videos of the object, it shows a bit of video of the object in situ, and then it cuts to the hologram.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. So you get both to see the hologram spinning on its own axle so you can see it from all sides and then as soon as you get closer to the artefact itself, to the hologram, it shifts to video so you can see what it’s like to dive towards the object itself. And because it hasn’t been raised these hanging cabinets have a light underneath them that shines the location of the artefact on the wreck site itself. All of this is happening on top of a carpet that’s been created with approximately 7000 photographs taken of this site, so that those photographs were used to create a 3d model that was flattened out and printed on this carpet in the scale of one to one. As you’re walking through the exhibition it’s actually like you’re stepping on the site itself.

    Sam Willis
    Certainly it’s the kind of thing that you need to go go back and see several times there’s so much going on, you’ve not to worry about missing things.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. You really need to take your time, it’s just not something that you’ve seen anywhere else before, and I think it has great potential to be used in in other contexts, other museum contexts as well.

    Sam Willis
    So you look at the Travelling Man, that’s the name of the 17th century vessel that went down, what are the others.

    Susanna Vallejos
    So a few of the others that we have in the museum are for example, the Sun, a Swedish vessel that exploded and sank in 1627, outside of Danzig, or Gdansk. We also have another wreck that we call Darss located outside of a town called Darss in Germany. And this is a cog, a mediaeval ship.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. They must have been be used for about 40 to 50 years, believed to be built around the 1300s and then sunk around the 1350s.

    Sam Willis
    There are a hundred or so?

    Sam Willis
    Fascinating, cogs, we need to know more about them, we really don’t know that much about them..

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. then there’s a few others, for example there’s a submarine from the Second World War; it sank in 1944 approximately between Estonia and Finland, and is now in a depth of 95 metres. And it’s saying it was built in 1942 in Kiel, it was launched the following year and sank a year after that, and it’s still pretty much intact. It’s a mine that made it sink. And another one that is really interesting is a ferry, Estonia, that sank in 1984 with approximately 1000 people on board. And this is something that people in the Baltic remember, it’s a collective trauma, I would say. I even remember when this occurred.

    Sam Willis
    I remember reading about it in the news, the Estonia obviously famously a big ferry that sank in a storm. And there’s a great deal to be discovered isn’t there. The U boat’s an interesting story; do you have many U boat wrecks in the Baltic?

    Susanna Vallejos
    So the one that we do have in the exhibition was used obviously to control what was happening in the Baltic during the Second World War at the time, and there still are thousands of mines out there. This specific one was moving in an area, and suddenly radio communications were lost with the submarine, and after some time they realised that it must have hit a mine, and there’s a particular part of the ship where you can see that it must have exploded. And it was found again in 2013. And we know that the crew consisted of around 50 people; the content of the ship, the crew, is still on board. It’s quite deep, so my understanding is that studying it is quite difficult. So it’s still there, pretty much untouched.

    Sam Willis
    And what other kind of projects have you guys got going on, looking at wrecks in the Baltic?

    Susanna Vallejos
    Well, there’s one of the exciting things about this museum is that we have maritime archaeologists, or diving maritime archaeologists, tied to the museum, heading out, being part of the various projects, and then bringing that information that they’re collecting back to the museum for us to do various things, and so these archaeologists are out monitoring different sites, they’re also part of different research projects and so on. For one we’ve located the sister ship of Vasa.

    Sam Willis
    Yes, heard about this.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Another one is that we’re heading out and monitoring the Travelling Man. It’s in a place where it’s not permitted to dive on it, so we need to keep track of its state. We try to keep track whether or not things are moved, simply its state of preservation. And so here’s an interesting question; the more we focus and make people aware of what there is, we also have to become more aware of the fact that we also have to protect these things, or monitor these sites even more. Or there’s a fear, I guess, that knowing more about it will lead to looting or lead to to disruptions that obviously aren’t good for the materials or the sites themselves. At the same time divers are very helpful in informing us or coming back with vital information about the state of different sites as well ,so they can also help take care of this cultural heritage. So it’s like a balance of both sharing, but also protecting. And basically I think that when we think about this, that we share responsibility, we involve as many people as possible and share the uniqueness of this cultural heritage, everyone will help each other and make sure that this is protected. And one of the things I would say is probably helpful in that is both what we have here in the museum allowing people to dive without getting wet for example, letting them experience that uniqueness and getting them excited about this, but also creating underwater parks where people can actually go down with a diver and see these amazing wrecks just resting at the bottom of the Baltic.

    Sam Willis
    It’s not an idea I’ve heard of before. I’ve certainly I’ve heard of people diving down to see art installations, for example, which I know you can do, going down to look at archeology. That tells you about the quality of the records you’ve got, and also how accessible they are. Because it isn’t a deep sea, the waters clear, and the wrecks have survived very well. A wonderful idea.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. I mean, it’s as you were saying, it’s not very deep here compared to other seas, and we have one of these diving parks, Dalaro Diving Park, located here in Stockholm. But there is another one being built as we speak, and that one is further down south outside of a city called Karlskrona. So do you dive?

    Sam Willis
    I can dive. It’s not one of my favourite things. I get very claustrophobic when I dive. I don’t like knowing what I can’t see what’s behind me, so I’d like to be able to dive with some kind of wing mirrors as in a car, and I just get really paranoid. I love being in the water, I’m very happy in the water, but I really don’t like not knowing what’s behind me. So yes, I do, but it’s not one of my favourite things.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Well I would recommend that you dive in either of these parks, or actually I would really love for you to try out our VR experience and then tell me how you fee ‘l is it realistic?. What’s the experience like for you, I would love to have some feedback

    Sam Willis
    Let’s do that and try out the VR experience.

    Susanna Vallejos
    That’s great.

    Sam Willis
    Yes. I Ialso love the fact that you go back so far in history. Tell me a little about the prehistoric side of things here.

    Susanna Vallejos
    One of our more traditional exhibitions, and the one that I’m thinking about right now, is called the Shared Sea. We go back about 7000 years to a site that we called Tybrind Vig, and this is a site that is in Denmark, and it’s actually located by a lagoon. And it’s a site that was in continuous use for about 1500 years, but as water rose, the settlement kept moving upwards. So the entirety of the site is far bigger than it was at one point in its use. And so part of it is under water and it was excavated, and actually the museum that is in charge of of the material today is Moesgaard Museum in Denmark. And some amazing material came from that site, for example, these dugouts, and paddles, with elaborate carvings and paintings or with paint on them basically that have been recreated and tested. And from what I can tell they worked fairly well in both protected waters by the lagoon and also further out at sea. And these paddles have been recreated as well, and they’re just phenomenal. But other materials were found there too, for example, some of the oldest textiles in Europe, not actually just textiles, of clothing, I’m assuming, but also ropes that wouldn’t have been preserved on land. There’s also

    Sam Willis
    They wouldn’t have been preserved in most oceans as well, that’s worth sayig, that goes back to what you were saying about the quality of preservation in the Baltic.

    Susanna Vallejos
    Exactly. And another thing that comes to mind is that some of these projects, just like the Vasa, feel to me, as though they helped various countries to develop methods of working with underwater material that hadn’t been there before, before the sites were found or worked on, a little bit like Vasa, where there wasn’t a maritime archaeology before. And so you found a way of both excavating, of caring for the materials and a little bit like trial and error. And so that’s one of the things that stands out for me specifically in this specific exhibition, it’s not only that, but some of the others examples as well show us various ways of working with the materials. And also how divided as we share the Baltic Sea, there’s also different regulations depending on what country you’re active in. And this is the first time that we have one space, a hub, where we can bring all of these different methods and histories and stories and experiences together in one single place. So that’s the goal of this museum. Even though we’re small we have a big vision, and hope to be able to be that space where all of this knowledge is collected. But yes we’ve been only open for a year and a half, so we still have a very long way to go.

    Sam Willis
    It’s a wonderful place. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed looking around. , I want to go and try out some of your latest technology we were talking about earlier. Let’s go and do that. Thank you very much.

    Sam Willis
    Thank you all so much for listening. Now, please do make sure that you leave us a review on whatever app that you’re listening on, especially if you’re listening on iTunes. We will read out any review that you leave. It’s hugely important. It helps us climb up the rankings and get as many people as possible listening to the podcast and that’s nearly half a million of you already. So thank you very much for your support, but we can do more. We’ve got a fantastic YouTube channel. Do please check that out. My current favourite is a wonderful animation of the rules and regulations of composite ships. It shows the secrets of the Tea clippers so make sure you have a look at that. The podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and Lloyd’s Register Foundation. So please make sure you do everything in your power to check out what those two brilliant institutions are up to. In particular, please check out Maritime Innovation In Miniature, just Google it, Maritime Innovation In Miniature. It’s Lloyd’s Register’s Heritage and Education Centre’s brilliant project, filming the world’s best ship models. And you can join, and please do join, the Society for Nautical Research @sn.org.uk. It will help support the podast, it will help support maritime heritag, it will help support maritime history. It’s worth every penn.y

Category: | | |