The Museum without Objects. A Visit to Sweden’s Museum of Wrecks.

The Entrance of Vrak, Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm, Sweden.
Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

As the heat and humidity of the South Florida summer continues, I have found myself thinking about the trip I took to Sweden last December. Blue skies, midwinter sunshine, snow, and cool air just above or just below freezing. I spent one of those lovely winter days visiting the Museum of Wrecks, a flagship museum recently added to the roster of tourist destinations in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm.

Museum of Wrecks is a museum dedicated to shipwrecks. The sea floor of the Baltic Sea, on whose shores Stockholm is located, and along which Sweden has its longest coastline, is littered with shipwrecks from all time periods, from the Stone Age until today. There are several reasons for that.

First, the Baltic Sea has been the main route for long-distance communications for thousands of years. The cargo ships and passenger ferries that criss-cross this sea today are the modern day bearers of a legacy that involves Stone Age settlers, Vikings, pirates, naval fleets, and trade ships. That many ships over that long period of time produce a lot of shipwrecks.

Second, the Baltic Sea is low on oxygen with limited water exchange. The only connection the Baltic Sea has to another large body of water, in this case the North Sea, is through the narrow straights of Øresund, Kattegatt, and Skagerrak, located between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These conditions prevent organic matter from deteriorating in the Baltic Sea. The result of the slow deterioration of organic matter is that shipwrecks are better preserved here than in other seas. Why? Because up until the late nineteenth century when steam engines replaced sail, ships were built from wood.

Map of Øresund, Kattegatt, and Skagerrak.
Source: Wikipedia/Public domain.

Third, the water in the Baltic Sea is brackish, not salt. Because of the limited water exchange through Øresund and the number of freshwater rivers flowing into the Baltic Sea from Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Baltic States, Poland, and Germany, the freshwater and salt water mix in the Baltic Sea makes the sea brackish. The brackish water prevents the naval ship worm (Teredo navalis) from thriving. The naval ship worm is not a worm, and it has nothing to do with ships per se. The naval ship worm is a salt-water clam that feeds on the cellulose found in wood submerged in water. It is called a worm because the traces the clam leaves behind in the wood look like worm tracks. The naval ship worm needs the saline level of the water in which it lives to be above a certain level. Because the Baltic Sea is brackish, the saline level is too low, and the naval ship worm has not been able to establish itself there. The result is that all those wooden shipwrecks littering the floor of the Baltic Sea are left unharmed.

Museum of Wrecks created quite a buzz when it first opened in September 2021. Not only is it the first museum dedicated entirely to shipwrecks, most astonishing of all is that there are no objects on display. Instead, Museum of Wrecks takes a deep dive into the possibilities provided by 3D, holograms, and surround sound and visual entertainment.

Museum of Wrecks created quite a buzz when it first opened in September 2021. Not only is it the first museum dedicated entirely to shipwrecks, most astonishing of all is that there are no objects on display. Instead, Museum of Wrecks takes a deep dive into the possibilities provided by 3D, holograms, and surround sound and visual entertainment.

When you arrive at the Museum of Wrecks it looks like any other museum. There is a shop, a café, and a counter where you buy your ticket. When you enter the exhibits, you arrive in a room with benches where you watch a movie about the Baltic Sea. Unlike most other museum movies, you are surrounded by images and sound that place you underneath the surface of the sea. Divers, marine animals, flotsam and jetsam surround you as you look up towards the ceiling.

The next stop is the permanent exhibit about the warship Resande Man, which sank in November 1660 on a diplomatic mission to Poland. Again, the exhibit takes place on the bottom of the sea. An entire wall of the room is an image of the sea floor. But what is most striking is that when you first enter the room, the room looks empty. All you see are transparent boxes with nothing in them. As you approach them, images appear. The images are holograms that consist of 3D scans of artifacts from Resande Man followed by short vignettes that locate the artifacts where they are found on the sea floor inside the wreck.

Video of hologram at the exhibit of Resande Man, Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm, Sweden.
Filmed by Erika Harlitz-Kern

The next part of the museum is an exhibit of six different shipwrecks from different time periods that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Baltic Sea across the centuries up until the most recent disaster involving the passenger ferry M/S Estonia in 1994. The final part of the museum is about maritime archaeology where once again 3D holograms come to great use. I really appreciated the dedicating of an entire section of the museum to research. It is rare that museum visitors get to see the work behind the information presented in the exhibits.

Museum of Wrecks left me invigorated at the same time as it also left me unsatisfied. The use of 3D images, holograms, and immersive audiovisual experiences were all refreshing and, at least in my mind, points in the direction of a way forward for a sector that currently struggles with how to offer a new experience to jaded tourists, how to handle the issue of displaying objects whose provenance is in doubt, and how to deal with issues regarding storage and preservation. At the same time, Museum of Wrecks is small, its exhibits are narrow in scope, and while the room with Resande Man felt nearly empty, the rooms dedicated to maritime research are cramped and overladen with information and objects.

Still, if you are in Stockholm, I recommend a visit to the Museum of Wrecks. It will give you a new perspective on the Baltic Sea throughout history and what the museums of the future might look like.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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