Nordic Heritage Museum (Seattle)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 12/15/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9952

The Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle has the distinction of being the only museum in the country that promotes the heritage and culture of the five Scandinavian countries and honors the legacy of their immigrants to the United States. Located in an old Seattle public school building in the Ballard neighborhood, the museum proudly flies the flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. The museum opened its doors on April 12, 1980, in the old Webster School at 3014 NW 67th Street after years of discussion, dreaming, and hard work.

The Beginning

As early as 1932 a group of Norwegians living in Seattle had talked of starting a Nordic museum, but nothing came of it. In 1962, at the Seattle World’s Fair, the Nordic countries were well represented with activities and exhibits. It became apparent that there were rich cultural treasures in the area relating to Nordic immigrants, and soon thereafter a Nordic Festival was started and for several years held annually.

In 1975 the Norwegian Immigration Sesquicentennial brought Norwegian organizations from around the country together to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Norwegian emigration to the United States. King Olav V of Norway (1903-1991) visited Seattle that year and noted the spectacular exhibit on Norwegian immigration at the Museum of History & Industry. According to Svein Gilje (1934-2009), a reporter at The Seattle Times who escorted him there, the king was dismayed that there was no permanent home for the exhibit. Mr. Gilje felt that providing such a home was almost a royal commission.

Nordic American leaders decided to come together as the Pacific Nordic Council to work on the establishment of a museum to promote and preserve the region's Nordic heritage. Leif Eie, Svein Gilje, Olav Lunde, Stig Andersen, Laina and Egon Molbak, Bert Lundh, and Henning Boe (1915-2010) were some of those who worked to locate a suitable building. Rosanne Royer (then wife of Mayor Charles Royer) informed the group of the availability of Webster School. On June 21, 1979, the Nordic group submitted a bid to lease the surplus school building for $10,000 a year. The first lease was signed in 1980 in the name of the Nordic Heritage Museum.

To finance the lease, the group rented space to the Skandia Folkdance Society, Universal Studios, and the Skandia Music Foundation. With little money but with dedicated volunteers, the dirty and damaged building was painted, broken windows replaced, and blackboards covered in burlap. It was with great pride that the museum opened its doors in 1980, after a ribbon-cutting by Roseanne Royer. The were two galleries filled with artifacts, some donated, some borrowed. Marianne Forssblad was the project director for the development of the museum, sharing her time between the Nordic Museum and the University of Washington Scandinavian department. Shortly thereafter she became the executive director of the museum and served in that capacity for 27 years.

Permanent Galleries

In 1986 the museum's core permanent exhibit, from Denmark, opened. The Dream of America, located on the main floor, depicts the impoverished conditions of rural Scandinavians and recreates, with realistic artifacts and sound effects, their trip across the ocean to Ellis Island and the equally difficult conditions they met upon their arrival in New York to pursue their dreams. Lifelike dioramas give glimpses of Ballard’s early Scandinavian history.

The second floor is graced by a sculpture Angels Playing Music by the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles (1875-1955), located opposite a bright gift shop containing books, sweaters, gloves, jewelry, and other Nordic items.

One of the three galleries on the second floor is devoted to logging, because at the turn of the century more than 10,000 Nordics worked in Washington's wood industries. Large, black and white historic photographs of these workers are displayed on the walls around the room, and dioramas of the logging camps give life to the drama of their experience. Note is given to Oscar Wirkkala (1880-1959), a Finn who invented numerous devices that aided productivity in the timber industry.

The second gallery concentrates on the fishing industry and its deep Scandinavian influence. This room is filled with the nets, buoys, oars, and tools of the industry. One display is has a two-man dory used for halibut fishing and an early gurdy (winch) used to haul halibut-fishing gear in and out of the water. The different fishing methods, such as longline, pot fishing, gillnetting, purse seining, and trawling, are explained. Attention is also given to contributions to Northwest boatbuilding by the Norwegian Sivert Sagstad (1880?-1946).

The third gallery is devoted to folk art and includes the exquisitely colorful native dress from each country. There are wood carvings, blankets, trunks, rosemaling (decorative painting), furniture, birch baskets, and musical instruments, all in Scandinavian design.

National Heritage

Five rooms on the third floor display the history and culture of the five Scandinavian countries. Each room denotes the numbers of Washingtonians of Nordic descent in 1990: Norway, 397,700;  Sweden, 257,953;  Finland, 44,110;  Denmark, 82,215;  and Iceland, 5,976.

The Norway Room features skiing, trolls, Hardanger embroidery, the Foss family and tugboats, and a collection of farming tools. There are also displays on the Sons of Norway, the Norwegian Male Chorus, and the Western Viking newspaper.

Swedish Hospital, Wallin and Nordstrom (the original Nordstrom's department store), and Frederick and Nelson are featured in the Sweden Room. There is also a sentimental scene of domestic life in a typical traditional Swedish room, featuring flowered wallpaper and lace curtains.

The Finland Room has a display of an immigrant home, and gives serious attention to the sauna. A diorama of a sauna with the glowing coal, figures on a bench,  and birch and evergreen branches is paired with  pictures of saunas and several explanations of its history.

The Denmark Room proudly displays a large picture of a cow along with dairy utensils. Churches and bakeries are also highlighted. There is a splendid diorama of an early Danish room with its lace curtains and a table covered with embroidered cloth.

A replica of a sitting room  from a stone and turf farmhouse and a display of the poet Jakobina Johnson (1883-1977),  who was born in Iceland but spent most of her life in Ballard, are among subjects featured in the Iceland Room

Displayed in the center of the third floor are items not to miss -- an authentic Faroese Clinker Craft "Viking Ship," a handmade and handcarved Norwegian dining table and chairs, and a 1644 carved bridal chest from Denmark.

Traveling Exhibits

The museum has scheduled many exhibitions from Scandinavia, including: A Town in Greenland; Sami Daida; Vikings! The Kalevala People -- the Origins of Finland; Finns and Treasures from the Great Land -- Alaska; Full Circle: First Contact -- Vikings in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Art has been a major focus of the museum's exhibitions. Among the many presentations are: Ray Jensen: a Retrospective; My Paradise: 100 years of Finnish Architects’ Summer Homes; Knitting Along the Viking Trail; Elegant Explorations: The Designs of Philip Jacobsen; and Looking Back to Find our Future, which features Nordic fashion.

Research and Publications

In 2005 former board president Olaf Kvamme (1923-2013) and his committee launched the twice-yearly Nordic Heritage Museum Historical Journal, featuring scholarly articles relating to Nordic history.

Oral histories have been an ongoing activity at the museum, capturing the reminiscences of immigrant Scandinavians. Voices of Ballard: Immigrant Stories from the Vanishing Generation was published in 2001, and the collecting of oral histories continues with a large volunteer group.

The music, dance, and text collections of Gordon Ekvall Tracie (1920-1988) are housed in the museum, and in 1995 this library was opened as a research archive of traditional Nordic music and dance.   

Education and Special Events

In addition to Nordic-language classes and heritage boxes assembled for public schools, the museum offers craft classes in woodcarving, knitting, rosemaling, and heritage sewing techniques.

For the past 16 years there have been "Mostly Nordic Concerts" held in the auditorium of the museum under the musical direction of Lisa Bergman. They are held on Sunday afternoons for five months beginning in January. Each month features music from one of the five Nordic countries and the concert is followed by a smorgasbord of food reflecting the country.

Yule Fest has been held each fall for 34 years as an opportunity to peruse hand-crafted gifts from Nordic-inspired vendors and enjoy Scandinavian food, drink, and entertainment. Tivoli/Viking Days held in the summer includes arts and crafts, food, and clothing booths. Among other special events is the Wallenberg dinner, which honors the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg (1913-1947?) whose efforts saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II.

Volunteers

More than 250 men and women volunteer at the museum and are involved in every department, mostly behind the scenes. The board of directors includes representatives from each ethnic community. Board presidents since 1980 have been:

  • Svein Gilje, Norwegian journalist;
  • Bert Lundh, Swedish businessman;
  • Olaf Kvamme, Norwegian educator;
  • Stig Anderson, Danish physician;
  • Alan Osberg, Swedish businessman;
  • Margi Wright, Icelandic administrator;
  • Irma Goertzen, Danish hospital administrator.

The Future

In 2009 Eric Nelson (b. 1957), former director of the Napa Valley Museum, took over the reins as executive director after his predecessor, Marianne Forssblad, had been instrumental in raising $5.1 million for the purchase of property on NW Market Street in Ballard for a new 60,000-square-foot facility.

A fundraising drive is underway to secure the additional millions needed for the construction a building designed by Mithun Architects. There is to be a two-story Fjord Hall surrounded by a new core exhibition and traveling exhibition galleries, and it will provide a new gathering place for the community as it celebrates the five Nordic cultures.


Sources: Mary Henry interview with Lisa Hill-Festa, Curator of Collections, Nordic Heritage Museum, and Eric Nelson, Executive Director, October 4, 2011, Seattle; Marianne Forssblad, "Nordic Heritage Museum 26 Years 1980-2006," Nordic Heritage Museum Historical Journal, September/Fall 2006; Peggy Sturdivant, "At Large in Ballard: Capturing the Voices," Ballard News Tribune, May 17, 2009; Jean Godden, "New Home for Nordic Museum?" The Seattle Times, November 16, 1998; Sheila Farr, "Wagner-inspired Paintings Donated to Nordic Museum," The Seattle Times, March 2, 2006; Phyllis Winfield, "Nordic Museum Filled With Memories -- New York Alley Scene Re-Created," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1990; Charles E. Brown, "Former Times reporter Svein Gilje dies at 75," The Seattle Times, November 20, 2009; Nancy Bartley, "Director of Nordic Heritage Museum returning to Sweden," The Seattle Times, April 30, 2007;  "Nordic Heritage Museum," Mithun website accessed October 5, 2011 (http://mithun.com/projects/project_detail/nordic_heritage_museum/).

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