400-year-old cannons flank the entrance of the Swedish military museum in Stockholm. The museum itself is an old armoury sitting far behind ornamented gates. The building is wide but not deep and stands three storeys high. The layout suits its refurbished purpose as a museum so that visitors can easily tour the exhibits without circling back and repeating their steps. Throughout the three floors, small rooms sit off to the side of the main exhibits and offer detail to the larger narrative of the history of war in Sweden from the Medieval era to present-day.
The tour begins on the third floor with exhibits from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. It circles down through the twentieth-century conflicts on the second floor where exhibits cover the World Wars, compulsory military service, the building of the Swedish welfare state, and the Cold War. On the ground floor there is the museum gift shop and information desk, temporary galleries, cloakrooms, and an exit leading to the museum cafe.
The tour starts with an exhibit of themes in human conflict: destruction and weaponry. Dark and foreboding, the third floor gallery opens into a room that features a life-sized model of a group of chimps attacking one of their own. A motion censor in the doorway activates a recording of panicked and fierce cries to accompany the violent image. Beyond the chimps are several displays of weapons throughout the ages, the most noticeable being a nuclear warhead for a medium-range Soviet missile. A large display case features hand weapons (daggers, spears, swords, maces, and pistols) from around the world and through the ages. This first room introduces the visitor to different ways of killing.
A small gallery to the side presents another prominent theme in the history of war: ownership. More specifically, this gallery features the spoils of war, items that Swedish troops plundered in victory over enemy cities and countries. An information plaque asks visitors to consider who rightfully owns these stolen items, if they should be returned to their original owners, or if they are part of a shared history.
The museum tour then continues into the 1500s. What struck me the most about this museum experience were the models and sets. Indeed three-dimensional battle-plans and replicas of weapons, uniforms, soldiers, and physical spaces (trenches, offices, bunks, and stables) in addition to artefacts are not uncommon in war museums. They effectively engage the public with an active and often dramatic history. The way the Armémuseum’s sets and models captured the diversity of war experiences reminded me of the importance of museums in making history and experiences of the past publicly accessible. These displays showed many aspects of war from the battle-plans and technology, to the experiences of solders and civilians both on and off the battlefield, in wartime and in peace.
I found the exhibits from the Thirty Years’ War and the Great Northern War of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be particularly powerful and so have decided to focus solely on this section of the museum. Unlike with the twentieth century conflicts, my own knowledge of these wars is meagre and so I was able to look at the exhibits with fresh eyes.
Before visiting the museum I had read about one of its more famous models: the charging cavalry from the Great Northern War (1700-1721). The model is of three soldiers on horseback riding in formation with swords drawn. They are positioned so that museum visitors wandering through the gallery find themselves immediately in the cavalry’s path. As an exhibit for the Battle of Narva (30 November, 1700), the model depicts Swedish victory, under King Charles XII, over Peter the Great’s Russian army.
Not all models are so glorious. One of the first scenes that greets museum visitors is an encampment from the Thirty Years’ War (1616-1648). In the middle of the large floor space is a small outdoor scene – a man bleeds a pig that he has hung from a tree while his family prepares a campfire, their small canvas tent sits behind them. A little farther away visitors see the cost of war: starvation. Two figures, a half starved woman in rags and an emaciated dog, pick clean a horse’s frozen corpse. Both of these, like the charging cavalry, are life-sized.
In an adjacent room visitors get a sense of the soldier’s home and family during the 1660s. The exhibit features the incredibly lifelike models of a woman and her small son – the hardship of a military family’s rural life is clear from their washed-out faces. Beside them is a small model of a typical soldier’s farm from this era – it looks desolate. The information plaque explains that while the soldier’s life was hard, being a soldier’s wife was harder. The museum’s exhibit does not shy away from the harsh aspects of war that went beyond the battlefield.
While taking into account the social and cultural histories of war, the museum still excels in its presentation of military technology and weapons. One gallery allows visitors to pick up a cannon ball. The cannon ball, enclosed in a small wooden container on the floor, is attached to a wire with a handle that a visitor can grasp and pull, thus lifting it. Cannonballs are heavy.
Another gallery on the third floor displays the various methods of military punishment for minor infractions to more serious crimes of theft and assault. Visitors are invited to sit for a moment on a replica “sawhorse.” At first glance it seems similar to a carpenter’s sawhorse, with the exception of the sharp seat; a simple object that makes for an unbelievably painful punishment.
The Armémuseum’s various galleries show the different ways in which war has affected Swedes over the centuries. Historical plaques throughout the museum tell the stories of famous individuals (royalty, generals, and politicians) as well as average civilians. Some of these brief but informative biographies include excerpts from diaries and letters of men and women who were affected by the conflicts. In this sense the museum excels at presenting the social and cultural history of war and peace in Sweden.
Hours: 10am-7pm, June-August; 11am-8pm Tuesdays, -5pm Wednesday-Sunday, September-May
Location: Riddargatan 13, in central Östermalm, Stockholm
Transit: closest metro station is Östermalmstorg; number 7 Spåväg City tram; buses 69, 52, 76, or 62 to Nybroplan
Cost: free admission
Languages: signs and guide in Swedish and English
Tour: self-guided – 1 to 2 hours
Accessibility: elevators and stairways; washrooms on first and third floors
Photography: allowed but flash prohibited
Note: for visitors in summer – like most buildings in Sweden it does not have air-conditioning
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