History, Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities

Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities, The Royal Palace. Painting by Pehr Hilleström frpm year 1796. Photo: Nationalmuseum.

Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities, The Royal Palace. Painting by Pehr Hilleström frpm year 1796. Photo: Nationalmuseum.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, several towns and villages at the foot of the volcano were buried in lava and ash.

The largest of the towns was Pompeii, which was “rediscovered" in the 1740s.

When the ex-cavation of Pompeii started in 1748 a number of key discoveries were made that increased knowledge about antiquities.


From this point in time a reaction grew against the dominating style of the era - rococo.

This was not only due to the excess of rococo, inspired by shells and scroll-like forms, but also because of its shallowness and affectation.

Rococo gave way to Neoclassicism, described as being of high moral stature, noble austerity and harmonic beauty

Classical art

The classical art of construction once again became a role model and this neoclassicism kept close to the role models of renaissance and baroque architecture. 

Greek art and architecture served as guidance. And most admired and imitated of all was the Doric style, calm and restful in its steadfastness.

The rising interest for the ancient world also lead to excavations in and around Rome,  which at times degenerated into a pure treasure hunt.

Art dealers

Sculptures and fragments of architecture were highly sought after in the world of art dealers.

The market was dominated by the Holy See and well-to-do customers outside Italy, primarily royal houses and nobility.

“Le grand tour"

Purchases were made in conjunction with the almost obligatory educational journeys that were made, “le  grand tour".

The Swedish King Gustav III also made such a journey southbound heading for Italy and Rome. The trip took place quite late in his live and lasted from September 1783 to August 1784, of which he spent approximately half the time in Italy.
Even though he travelled incognito as the Count of Haga, it was already know that the Swedish King was a prospective buyer of marble sculptures and art objects.


On New Year´s day in 1784, Gustav III and his entourage were shown the collection of ancient sculptures in the Vatican, Museo Pio Clementino. Their guide was no less than Pope Pius VI himself.

The visit to the papal “gallery of muses" served as guidance for Gustav III´s acquisitions of ancient statues and their later exhibition after his death in 1792.  

Gustav commissioned artist Bénigne Gagneraux to depict the meeting with the Pope.

Apollo and the muses

As those who were carrying out the excavation and restoration of the antiquities knew that Gustav III wished to acquire an Apollo statue and nine female statues, they made sure to provide him with what he wanted!

Not all the muses  were  originally  created as muses,   but  were  complemented  and  provided with the suitable attributes by art dealers and those carrying out the restoration.

They were also skilful at concealing fractures and joints from added sections.

An authentic museum

When visiting the Gustav III´s Museum of Antiquities as an authentic museum from the 1790s, it is important to know that additions made in the 1700s have not been removed, a practice that has been carried out with similar sculpture collections in other museums.

It is also important to remember that all objects, with the exception of their additions, are of classical origin and that most of the larger statues are more or less free Roman interpretations of Greek motif.

The collection was intended for Gustav III´s planned palace in Haga.

A new collection

However, when the collection - consisting of a few hundred objects (not only sculptures but also vases) - was shipped to Stockholm it was first given a place at the state rooms at the in the Royal Palace of Stockholm. 

Sweden, before being so void of classical sculptures, had now suddenly been enriched.

In order for the collection to be useful from an educational perspective it was also available to a certain extent to artists and interested amateurs from the upper classes.

Gustav III was assassinated

When Gustav III died on March 29, 1792 following an assassination attempt two weeks earlier at a masquerade ball, it took just three months for the government to decide to establish a museum dedicated to antiquities.

According to the charter of the foundation that established the museum, it was founded as a tribute to the dead king “for his efforts as a protectorate of art in his lifetime."

Carl Fredrik Fredenheim - the musum´s first curator

The museum´s first curator was Carl Fredrik Fredenheim, who at that time was the most qualified person in the country for the position.

He had earlier already assisted Gustav III in the acquisition of the collection and was one of the first to carry out systematic excavations at the Forum Romanum in Rome.

The location

The north east palace wing was designated as the location for the new museum - exactly the same spot where the collection is displayed today.

Nicodemus Tessin the Younger would most likely have preferred the Orangery at Ulriksdal instead.

However the Stockholm palace location meant that the architect Carl Fredrik Sundvall did not need to make any extensive changes to adapt the rooms to the requirements of a museum.

Ready to open

In 1794 the museum was ready to open to the public. It was one of northern Europe's first art museums and also noteworthy as it - despite its name “the Royal Museum " - was public property belonging to the Swedish State.

The museum changed character in the 1800s in that space was made for modern sculptures of the period. Artist such as Johan Tobias Serge, Niclas Byström and Erland Fogelberg exhibited their work in the museum.

A change took place

However, a more significant change took place around 1840 when the smaller inner gallery was used for exhibiting oil paintings.

In conjunction with this the interiors were revamped. Cupboards and shelves disappeared and the room was given a new colour replacing that from the 1700s.

Later as the collection of art grew, it became clear that the museum space at the palace was not large enough.

A new museum building

After long and drawn out debates the government finally resolved to finance a new museum building, which was inaugurated in 1866.

The new museum, to which the Royal Museum ´s collecti-on was transferred, was given the name National Museum (National Gallery).

It was a suitable name as the museum, in addition to housing art collections,  also  was  intended  to house the state´s Historical Museum, Coin Cabinet and the Royal Armoury.

The Royal Library are using the rooms

The former rooms of the Royal Museum were taken over by the Royal Library, which already used the rooms above the museum.

When the library was given its own building in Humlegården in 1877, the museum was rebuilt to house the Royal Armoury collections, which were exhibited here between 1884 and 1906.

After 1906, the museum was used for diverse purposes.

The 1950s

In the 1950s, however, it was realized that responsibility must be take for the former Royal Museum and that it was indefensible to allow these architecturally classical rooms to remain closed to the public.

The initiative to return Gustav III collection of antiquities to their original home was partly taken by the National Museum and by the Office of the Governor of the Royal Palaces.

The king at that time, Gustaf VI Adolf, was enthusiastic about the idea and palace architect Ivar Tengbom was responsible for the renovation.

The museum is opend again

In 1958 the museum opened its doors once again to the public, now under the name Gustav III´s Museum of Antiquities.

The renovation carried out in the 1950s encompassed mainly the large gallery and the gallery of the muses - not the entire museum.


Therefore, in 1992, in conjunction with the celebration of 200 years since the inauguration of the museum, it was natural that a full restoration of the original Royal Museum was carried out.

It was possible to do this thanks to well preserved pictures, drawings and other archive material that guaranteed the original positioning of objects, architecture, colours and other decorative details.



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