One century’s spectacular failure is the centerpiece of another century’s world-class museum.

The failure was the sinking of a warship, Sweden’s Vasa, on Aug. 10, 1628.

Quite possibly the grandest warship of its time, Vasa was designed by Sweden’s king to strike fear in the hearts of his enemies and enhance his reputation.

Gustav II Adolf (1594-1632) was the grandson of Gustav I, also called Gustav Vasa, the first of the Vasa dynasty.

People believed that the king was granted power from God.

“After God, the welfare of the kingdom hangs on the fleet,” was the message from the priests to the people.

But on her maiden voyage, while still in Stockholm harbor, in front of the eyes of horrified spectators, Vasa sank.

People who had been celebrating moments earlier rushed to the rescue. The ship was designed to hold about 450 people (about 145 sailors and 300 soldiers) but it was not fully loaded. About 30 men, women and children perished in the frigid Baltic Sea.

With carvings depicting gods and heroes and the king himself, Vasa was a work of art, carrying an enormous load of cannons, 64. The weight of the art and the cannons and the ship’s design — 6 inches too narrow — caused it to be unable to handle even a light puff of wind. It sank, but not because of an error on the part of the captain or crew.

Three centuries later an amazing feat of engineering enabled it to be lifted from the ocean floor. Vasa’s restoration was costly and painstaking and its preservation efforts are ongoing.

Why did I enjoy the museum so much?

1. The ship. Since the ship was newly built and sank in cold, dark, almost oxygen-free waters (protecting it from worms and bacteria), with less salt than the ocean, the wood is well preserved. About 95% of the ship was intact, including the sails.

2. The museum. It is beautifully designed architecturally and thematically.

3. Vasa’s people. Researchers are using the skeletons, clothing remnants, records and documents to tell stories about some of the people who perished.

I learned that warships spent little time at war. Most of their time was spent sailing around, looking fierce.

Women — if they behaved themselves, as one source put it — were allowed to live on board with the crew.

“Always present — often invisible” is a phrase from the museum that sums up the role of women.

I learned that in 17th century Sweden women who were married or widowed often were very active in traditionally “male” occupations. Single women, however, never had that opportunity. Business and other opportunities outside the home only opened up to women through their husbands — living or dead.

One of the displays stated: “(Husband and wife) shared the responsibility of keeping home and business going. A woman was expected to provide leadership in the same way as a man. Formally, the man had the last word. It was his name on the paper, even if she was the driving force in a business. Often, she signed her husband’s name.”

For example, Margareta Nilsdotter was the head and property manager of the Stockholm shipyard. After her husband’s death, she assumed responsibility for the construction of Vasa.

Brita Gustavsdotter Båth was a landowner who sold timber to the shipyard where Vasa was constructed.

Beata (a name given to her by researchers) was on board Vasa at the time she sank. According to researchers, women participated in all possible maritime activities. Beata might have been the sister or wife of a crew member.

Because of her skeleton and clothing remnants, researchers have determined that Beata was of average height, in her mid 20s. She was wearing a fine jacket and embroidered shoes and carrying a small knife. Her health was not good. She had been malnourished or seriously ill as a child; at the time of her death she was suffering from anemia or chronic diarrhea. She had a notch in her teeth, a feature of people who sew a lot and bite off the threads.

The museum is a triumph of art, architecture and archeology.

GRACE HOUSHOLDER is a columnist and editorial writer for this newspaper. Contact her at

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