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Today I had an interesting visit to the Swedish Royal Armory Museum, or Livrustkammaren, which preserves relics from Sweden’s apogee as a military power in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. More than merely a military museum, the Livrustkammaren is an exercise in the advent of historical consciousness. It is the oldest museum in Sweden, and has its origins in the command of King Gustav II Adolph in 1628 to preserve his clothes from his campaign in Poland. The website of the museum says:

Here you will also find historic items such as the blood-stained shirts and buff jerkin which Gustavus Adolphus was wearing when he was killed in the battle at Lützen (Germany) in 1632. The costume worn by Gustavus III when he was assassinated at a masqued ball at the Royal Opera in 1792 is also on display, as is the uniform worn by Charles XII when he was killed in the trenches at Fredrikshald (Norway) in 1718.

The year the museum was established, 1628, was the same year that the Vasa warship sank on its maiden voyage. It is interesting to note that this ship, replete with its many symbols of imperial dynastic rule — including medallions of Roman emperors — was built (and, unfortunately for the crown, sunk) at the same time that Gustav II Adolf ordered the preservation of his blood-stained clothing from his military campaign in Poland. This was a monarch who was not only thinking of military triumphs and personal glory, but also obviously concerned with his place in history — a concern that extended to historical preservation and invoking the symbols of Roman imperial rule.

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Textiles are, apparently, more easily preserved than ships, and so the first bequest that created the Swedish Royal Armory Museum is still on display. It took rather longer to refine the technique of preserving ships, but the attempted preservation of ships has an interesting history. This preservation history is an exercise in historical consciousness — and also, as it turns out, the source of a perennial paradox of Western philosophy. The Athenians attempted to preserve the ship of Theseus, and this attempted preservation in the interest of ancient Greek historical consciousness — did not the Greeks invent the genre of history? — resulted in the paradox that is now synonymous with the Ship of Theseus. Here is what Plutarch said of the attempted preservation of the Ship of Theseus:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

After Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation, his ship, The Golden Hind, was put on display in Deptford and remained so for a hundred years until it rotted away — apparently the English were not as keen as the Greeks in their attempted curation. Now we have the example of the Vasa, which was not nearly so seaworthy as The Golden Hind, but which first preserved in the icy waters of Stockholm harbor for more than 300 years, and now preserved by the techniques of contemporary science and technology, and may be so preserved indefinitely, as long as the infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization shall endure to maintain the Vasa in existence in its present form. The Vasa’s technologically-enabled preservation (and even sempiternity) is another way in which scientific historiography contributes to growing historical consciousness, and makes the Vasa, which was not seaworthy, “history-worthy,” i.e., seaworthy on the ocean of history.

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