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Seattle’s New Nordic Museum

The 10 Most-Stunning Things About this New Home for Nordic Culture

The Northwest has long been home to immigrants from the Nordic countries, and Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has traditionally been the epicenter of the Scandinavian scene. While new high-rises and shops have replaced most of the Scandinavian spots, the new Nordic Museum, which opened May 5, is leading a revival of all things Scandinavian with a spectacular, purpose-built museum that’s drawing attention far beyond the Northwest. The new museum was a spark of inspiration by the Nordic Heritage Museum, which was housed in a nearby brick school building. This new incarnation (which took 20 years of planning and $52 million) couldn’t be farther from the original—it’s a highly interactive museum focusing on thousands of years of Scandinavian history and contemporary Scandinavia, as well as the nations’ influences on American culture. Here are the 10 most-stunning things about this masterpiece of contemporary Scandinavian design.

nordic museum

Cool Design

Taking a cue from geology (the Nordic countries’ valleys, lakes and fjords were forged by glaciers), the architectural firm Mithun created an interior with undulating, faceted white planes that evoke glaciers, with 35-foot-tall Fjord Hall extending the length of a football field through the center of the building. The museum’s exterior is clad in zinc, as if to suggest the darkness of winter in these regions, while its interior reception space glows with light pouring in from large panes of glass and sparkling, contemporary Danish lighting. The three-story-tall, 57,000-square-foot building has drawn admiration from The New York Times, Architectural Digest, even Scandinavian royalty. (The Crown Princess of Denmark will be attending the Grand Opening, as will the President and First Lady of Iceland, and all five Nordic ambassadors.)

ballard seattle nordic museum

Engaging Exhibits

The exhibit designer was the renowned Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which designed Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Newseum. Known for engaging exhibits with interactive elements, the firm developed the Nordic Museum’s main exhibit, Nordic Journeys (above), which begins with an exploration of what differentiates the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland), and comprises 11,000 years of Nordic history and culture.

In the Beginning

The Sense of Place gallery features a dramatic sensory setting. Surrounded by trees in a simulated birch forest, you can watch the mesmerizing landscapes of the Nordic region on a massive screen, from the North Sea sand bluffs of Denmark to the lakes of Finland to the windswept volcanic terrain of Iceland. The experience offers a sense of how living in a harsh and fragile environment helped shape the cultural orientation of those living in these northern lands.

The Vikings and Beyond

Vikings are all the rage these days. They were literally the rage from approximately A.D. 800 to A.D. 1050. Viking-era artifacts seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic will be on display, with ancient swords, rune stones, jewelry and more, including an extraordinary, colorful bead necklace once worn by a Viking woman. Among other exceptional pieces on display are a 13th century bronze liturgical incense burner inscribed with Runic characters that denote that the object was made by the finest silversmith in Denmark.

nordic museum crossing paths

It Takes a Village

The museum’s staff worked closely with more than 75 Nordic partners, including national museums in all five countries, to assemble an extraordinary display of items that help tell the broader story of the Nordic region, from the stone age and bronze age through the Viking age, all the way to modern days. A temporary gallery will house rotating exhibits, starting with Fridtjof Nansen (through Aug. 5), a biographical narrative of the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, and Northern Exposure: Contemporary Nordic Arts Revealed(through Sept. 16, photo: Crossing Paths, Outi Pieski, 2014); in October, The Vikings Begin will be a West Coast premiere exhibition, with treasures from Uppsala University’s collection of pre-Viking and Viking-age boat grave finds.

Push and Pull

A tremendous influx of Nordic immigrants took place between 1890 and 1910, with an astonishing 25 percent of the Nordic population leaving their homelands, bound for the shores of the New World. You’ll learn what impelled them to leave and what forces pulled them west, before crossing a bridge—a metaphor for migration—that soars high above the chasm of Fjord Hall. Stepping off the bridge and into the Nordic America Gallery, you’re confronted with the challenging integration experiences immigrants faced when they arrived in New York. Close to 150,000 of the Nordic immigrants found their way to the Northwest, and set about working in the logging, fishing and farming industries. The exhibit, which examines their new lives in this land, is punctuated by emblems, including a 3-ton, Rube Goldberg-esque fish processing machine from 1910 that could butcher and clean 110 fish per minute, a job that previously required 22 workers.

Bridging Generations

A second, narrower, bridge returns you to the Nordic Region Gallery. This passageway represents American influences the immigrants passed back to their homelands, and picks up the Nordic storytelling thread, bringing the Nordic experience through World Wars I and II, and into the modern era. The final display, the Nordic Perspectives Forum, is an interactive area that allows you to learn about the modern-day culture of the Nordic countries and how they’re paving the way for world change on many levels, including social, environmental, technological and in the arts.

nordic museum freya

Smorgasbord of Scandinavian Delights

The Freya Café (open to all, not just museum-goers) will serve cocktails and a rotating selection of light, Scandinavian-inspired fare, such as Danish-style hot dogs made with local Uli’s Famous Sausage; open-face smoked salmon sandwiches (above); and desserts.

Social Spheres

The new Nordic Museum has an abundance of community gathering spaces, including meeting rooms (with classroom space for the Scandinavian Language Institute); craft and workshop rooms (with a fully outfitted woodshop); the Cultural Resource Center, filled with Nordic books; and a beautifully stocked gift shop. The dazzling, 4,200-foot Osberg Great Hall, with massive window walls, star-like constellations of lights and astonishing acoustics, is already filling up with Nordic Nights performances. The museum’s programming also includes kids’ activities, a literary series, films, lectures and more.

Equality Rules

Egalitarianism is a hallmark of the Nordic countries, and Eric Nelson, CEO of the Nordic Museum, notes that, “While one out of every eight people in Washington state self-identifies as having Nordic ancestry, we want our new museum to be a place for everyone.”

– Written by Leslie Forsberg

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