Call in the Cavalry!: Stockholm’s Army Museum on a Dark Winter’s Night

Swedish Army Museum, Armémuseum, Stockholm, Sweden

I know some people don’t like army museums – either because they can be seen as being staid and dull, or because of the ethical implications of ‘celebrating’ the savagery of war. Perhaps because both my grandfathers were in the army, I find them quite fascinating.  And this one was particularly good.

The museum is open for a late night on Tuesdays, and when we visited on a very dark December night, it felt like we basically had the place to ourselves.  This made for a rather unique experience, because, as some of the images will show, there were some highly vivid wax models, and some eerie displays.

The Army Museum has quite a heritage.  It originally opened in 1879, located on a site that was the main artillery depot, and its purpose was to collect equipment from armies around the world.  The current building is from the 18th century, a design by Carl Johan Cronstedt and Colonel Carl Ehrensvärd – a very elegant and vast structure which looks imposing on a dark, snowy night.  Originally known as the Artillery Museum, in the 1930s it was rebranded with the name Army Museum, and it was refurbished and reopened in 1943.  It was refurbished again, and reopened in 2002.  It still feels very fresh, which is unusual for 21st century renovation projects.

Because the history of the army is closely associated with the complexities of politics in war, I’m just going to give a basic overview of the highlights of the museum for me – which were mainly the amazing uniforms and evocative displays.  Actually, that was really the main point of the museum too – there were weapons on show, but not a tiresome amount.  And what they had was really interesting.

The way you’re greeted is pretty chilling.  At this point you know that the museum isn’t going to dodge the brutality of war.

The museum is rightly proud of the many beautiful banners it has in the collection.  These were collected from routed enemies, but some are also Swedish.  Unfortunately, the information on each was only available on a computer-thing, which wasn’t responding when we were there, so I don’t know anything about them.  So here are some pretty pictures to show what they had… followed by more uniforms and objects of interest.

One other particularly fascinating object was the Ottoman tent.   It belonged to the Ottoman army when it laid siege to Vienna in 1683.  Their camp was seized and among the looted goods were five large tents.  These were displayed in Dresden then divided amongst the victors. This tent was claimed by the Elector of Saxony, John George III. When the Swedish army later vanquished the Polish-Saxonian troops in the battle of Klissow in 1702, the tent changed hands.  It was used by the Swedish royals for various festivities and military drills until 1898, when King Oscar II donated it to the Army Museum.

Raoul Wallenberg and Second World War

There is a very mini-exhibition about the amazing Raoul Wallenberg.  He was a diplomat who arrived in Budapest in July 1944 and helped to save between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews.  His purpose in going to Hungary was to set up a rescue programme, in response to news that Jews were being deported en masse to camps.  Wallenberg and his fellow diplomats issued passports which identified the bearers as Swedish citizens.  Although these weren’t legal, they were generally recognised by the German authorities.  He also created safe-houses by renting 32 buildings which he declared to be extraterritorial and therefore protected by diplomatic immunity.  He called these buildings suitably Swedish things like the “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” – you know, the types of places that a war-torn city in middle Europe naturally needed.  But it did the job.

Some six months after he arrived, Wallenberg was arrested for espionage by the invading Russians.  Even today no one knows exactly what happened, or why he was arrested.  Some of his belongings, including his driving license and passport, were returned to his family in 1989, but no closure was offered by explaining what happened to him.  If even the Soviets were ashamed of what they did, it must have been horrific.

The Power and the Story Exhibition

There was an interesting small exhibition which explored the way museums tell their stories and examined the nature of history.  It raised many points about how a collection is formed and I unusually took pictures of a number of information boards because I liked the phrasing of various problems that arise when trying to preserve and decipher history – for example, which objects deserve to be preserved or put on display?  How does a museum choose to accept or reject an offered donation?  This thoughtful exhibition is also a reminder that everyone, however well-meaning, has an agenda when reporting ‘the facts’.

The most significant display was of a housing container.  In 2010, the curators of the Army Museum went to Kosovo in order to document everyday life in Camp Victoria, which was where most of the Swedish contingent of the International Force lived.  They wanted to collect the complete living quarters of a Swedish soldier, and Per-Ivar Norell duly donated his belongings, along with the container he’d been living in.

A few months later, Norell’s stuff arrived at the museum.  Only it wasn’t in his container.  Therefore it was no longer the ‘entire living quarters’ and it never became a museum object.  In fact, once the exhibition was over, they might have got rid of it.

Is that right?  Does it matter that the container belonged to someone else, if it is basically the same as the original?  If all the items belonged to one man, is that not enough continuity?  The container becomes a ‘set’ for the belongings.  Or not.  I wonder what they did with it.

So In Summary

Yes, this museum looks at the world of the Swedish army, but it is also a social history museum, because wars don’t occur out of a social context.  War played a part in everyday life for Swedes for many centuries and the horrors and suffering involved are acknowledged and tastefully explored.  It is a beautifully curated and thoughtfully assembled collection with a good balance of evocative (sometimes downright freaky) wax mannequins, and interesting artefacts.  And it makes eerie visiting when you’re alone there on a dark winter’s night…

General Information

Basic visiting information is available in English on the museum’s website: www.armemuseum.se

Entry is free and there is a cute gift shop.

There is a trail that children can do around the museum.

How To Get There

As with most places in Stockholm, it is easily reached via public transport.  For details in English, check out the extremely handy Stockholm transport website: www.sl.se

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