As a volunteer at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, I eagerly awaited the day it would move from the former 1908 Webster school building into its new-construction museum facility. This coming weekend, the new Nordic Museum (dropping “Heritage” from its name) makes that move with its grand opening at noon on Saturday, May 5. This ceremony is free to the public, followed by a weekend-long festival of traditional music and family activities.
A grand opening it will be: Dignitaries ranging from Denmark’s Crown Princess Mary to Iceland’s president to ambassadors from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will participate in the opening ceremony. Then the strikingly modern facility opens its permanent and visiting exhibits to the public. A new timed-ticketing system is designed to allow enjoyment of the exhibits without over-crowding.
The new Nordic Museum makes a bold statement on Ballard’s main thoroughfare, Market Street. It’s just two blocks from another major attraction, the Ballard Locks. The museum’s dramatic exterior is matched by an equally stunning interior, which I previewed as a Nordic Museum member and volunteer.
Upon entering, Fjord Hall rivets your attention with its long space, high ceilings and Migration exhibit overhead. Nearly 20 stained-glass birds “soar” down the hall. Created by artist Tróndur Patursson of the Faroe Islands, the birds can be viewed both from the first floor and walkways that connect exhibits on the second floor.
Nordic Journeys showcases the museum’s permanent exhibition, displayed on two floors in five galleries. It includes more than 100 loaned items from national museums in Nordic countries to complement its own exhibits, spanning 11,000 years of history to the present. These include stone axes and tools that are more than 4,000 years old; Viking-era rune stones, swords and jewelry; 17th-century religious objects; and examples of 20th-century modern design.
Start in the Nordic Orientation Gallery on the first floor to view artifacts such as fish skin shoes with hand-knit insoles from Iceland, an 1808 Rosemaled ale bowl from Norway, and child’s Sami (Laplander) outfit.
On the second floor, you first enter the Sense of Place Gallery. It features a floor-to-ceiling wall with loop video of stunning scenery from the Nordic regions. Soaring mountains, sweeping coastlines, plunging waterfalls, dramatic cliffs and iceberg-clad shores — the images inspire appreciation for both the rugged environment and the peoples who settled it. Watch in comfort by sitting on the stuffed fabric “stones” that create a “shoreline” along with several birch tree trunks.
Continue into the Nordic Region Gallery to view such treasures as copper coins recovered from the 1628 Vasa shipwreck in Sweden, a 19th-century reindeer milking bowl from Finland, and a model of the Oseberg Viking ship. It was discovered in a ship burial mound dating to 834 AD on the Oseberg farm in Norway. This gallery also includes the immigrant experience of Nordic peoples as they began migrating to America in the 19th century.
Adjacent is the Nordic Perspectives Forum, where visitors can explore ideas, perspectives and trends currently emerging from Nordic societies via interactive screens.
Across several walkways is the Nordic America Gallery, greeting you first with a display of women’s native dresses. All are beautiful; the highlight is a skautbúningur (Icelandic national dress) worn by immigrant Gudrun Bjornsson on her wedding day in Canada in 1890. Other displays illustrate Seattle’s bustling lumber, ship building, fishing and canning industries during the early 20th century.
The Nordic Museum also opens with a special display in its Visiting Exhibition Gallery on the first floor. From May 5 to Sept. 16, Northern Exposure, contemporary Nordic Art Revealed showcases modern art by a variety of artists. The art ranges from intriguing fabric hangings to colorful sculptures and paintings.
Another special exhibit from May 5 to Aug. 5 is Fridtjof Nansen from Norway’s Fram Museum. Nansen’s accomplishments went well beyond his fame as an arctic explorer; he was a scientist, ambassador and humanitarian, aiding 1920s refugees using “The Nansen Passport.”
The Nordic Museum includes a spacious Museum Store, Great Hall for lectures and performances, Cultural Resource Center, classrooms and craft room for various activities. Unlike the old museum, it features a Nordic café: Freya, offering smørrebrød (Danish open-sandwiches), personal Smörgåsbord (Swedish samplings), Danish Dogs made with Uli’s Famous Sausage, and treats such as toscakaka (Swedish almond caramel cake), plus craft cocktails, beer and wine. You can visit both Freya and the Museum Store without paying admission for the museum.
Outside in the East Garden, the Nordic Museum also features two large exhibits from its permanent collection. One is the Nordic Spirit, a Norwegian fishing vessel built in the early 1800s and redesigned in the 1970s to resemble a Viking ship. The other is a 1918 Finnish sauna, made from hand-hewn cedar logs by an early settler on his Finn Hill farm near Kirkland.
In conjunction with the museum’s debut, Nordic Seattle takes place during the entire month of May. The city-wide celebration of Nordic arts, culture and innovation is made possible by key partnerships with Seattle organizations, the five Nordic embassies, Nordic Council of Ministers, Nordic Culture Fund and Iceland Naturally. See what’s happening under “Events” on the museum’s website.
The Nordic Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Thursday. General admission is $15, seniors $12, students (with ID) and youth (K–12) $10. Museum members and children (ages 0–4) are free.
Limited parking behind the museum costs $1 per hour for museum visitors.
2655 N.W. Market St.
Seattle, WA 98107
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.