There’s a new museum in Seattle to celebrate the history of the Nordic people. How does that history translate into a modern museum? We decided to investigate on a recent visit to Seattle. We’re happy to report that this museum is a must-see for everyone. It’s a gorgeous space, a fascinating history lesson, and a celebration of the core values that can unite us all.
where is the new seattle nordic museum?
The Nordic Museum is in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a good 20-30 minute drive from the city center and waterfront. So you won’t stumble across it. You’ll have to seek it out. While you’re in the neighborhood, you can also stop by the Ballard Locks with its famous Salmon Ladder, and at the nearby Botanical Garden.
what is the purpose of this new museum?
The museum’s stated is purpose is to share the core elements of Nordic history and heritage. That mission is executed through art exhibits open to the public, and by preserving collections, providing educational and cultural experiences, and serving as a community gathering place. There’s a rich heritage of immigrants from Scandinavia in Seattle, and this museum brings their journey to life.
does it reflect the best of nordic design?
The Scandinavian region is known for design. And the first thing that struck us about the Nordic Museum was its incredibly clean lines. We were fortunate to be there on day with brilliant sun and blue skies. The space is at its best when light and shadow can play across its corridors and exterior. The precise crisp lines in which the shadows fall is your first indication that this is going to be a pristine aesthetic experience.
Design mavens will love this museum, irrespective of its contents. It’s stunningly beautiful. The soaring atrium that greets you at the main entrance is characteristic of what follows. It’s uplifting, optimistic, crisp, fresh and coolly elegant.
what’s the current exhibit?
The first floor of the museum is used for rotating exhibits. When we visited, the gallery was hung with photos of the Nordic diaspora in America.
It immediately struck us that at least of the third of the subjects in these photos seemed to be of color – not the typical Nordic look that one might expect. That’s because a number of Native Americans have Nordic blood.
Starting on October 20, 2018, the visiting exhibit is “The Vikings Begin.” It tells the story of the Vikings of early Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway).
Theirs was an intensely maritime society, with a very close and important relationship to the sea. The exhibit contains original artifacts, reconstructions, and archaeological discoveries from early Viking Age society.
what are the elements of the permanent collection?
The first permanent installation that we saw was the “Nordic Orientation.” Its intent is to ground visitors in what constitutes “Nordic.” Six countries comprise the group: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark.
The introductory film is a series of interviews with people of Nordic heritage. And the underlying messages are strong and simple. Pride in their heritage, and a ready willingness to identify with and embrace others with experiences similar to their own. Specifically, the experiences of immigrants and outsiders in a foreign land.
The film also introduces the concept of sisu. Originating in Finnish culture, sisu means strength of will, determination, perseverance and acting rationally in the face of adversity.
an enchanted forest
The next leg of your visit happens on the second floor, which houses the museum’s permanent collection. We love how the designers of the space cleverly delivered an Instagram dream in one striking and memorable gallery. The Sense of Self installation gallery is an immersive and beguiling experience.
Meant to evoke a forest of birch trees, with soft sofas and ottomans that are shaped like stones on the forest floor, the inventive space conveys the natural beauty of the Nordic region It also serves as a serene space in which to sit and reflect.
One of the museum’s staffers laughingly told us that this is her favorite part of the museum. We completely understand why. It’s a lovely way to take a journey to Scandinavia, just for a moment. We emerged feeling refreshed, and wanting to book a flight to Copenhagen as soon as possible.
a display of nordic values
At the heart of the museum lies a display of the four core Nordic values: openness, social justice, connection to nature, and innovation.
What we loved best about this gallery was the call to action and the provocative issues that it raised. Visitors can write responses to questions that call on them to both reflect on the challenges that the world currently faces, and to consider their role in addressing them.
The products displayed in this gallery highlight the practical application of the four core values. For example, there are new inventions and design improvements meant to foster sustainability, community and inclusiveness.
the journey to america
From the values gallery, the flow of the museum takes visitors on a journey meant to replicate the journey of immigrants from the Nordic countries to North America. One side of the second floor focuses on the culture, life and experiences of families in their native Scandinavia.
Cross the glass walkways on the second floor, and you enter a series of displays about the experiences of families once they arrived in the New World.
Throughout your visit to the Nordic Museum, a flock of birds accompanies you.
One of the best design elements in this space is these winged companions. A flock of iridescent seagulls seem to glide and swoop throughout the museum’s atrium. It’s a whimsical element that evokes life on and near the sea. And it adds a touch of magic to the experience.
a lovely cafe and gift shop
Once we finished our tour, we stopped in at the museum’s well-stocked gift shop. There’s also a lovely cafe serving Nordic treats. On the day we visited, it was awash in sunlight. It’s a splendid place to spend a bit more time soaking in the beauty of this museum.
We confess that we hadn’t spent much time thinking about the experiences of the Nordic people in America. This was an eye-opening revelation, and a really enjoyable way to spend an hour or so.
The museum makes it clear that the Nordic community represents shared values that can inspire us all. It seems to call on all of us to explore, to venture out. And with open arms, to welcome voyagers of all kinds to our shores.
Well done, Nordic Museum! We will definitely visit again the next time we’re in town.
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