On the Town: New Museum Helps Visitors Warm Up to Nordic Culture

One goal of the new Nordic Museum in Ballard is to show how the values of Nordic culture resonate and influence this region’s contemporary values.

What Seattle cultural facility has a fjord, two bridges, colorful seabirds soaring high, a fireplace, and a café serving such delicacies as pepperkakor (ginger cookies) and toscakaka (almond caramel cake)?

That would be the Nordic Museum, an impressive new facility near the famed Ballard Locks.

Other museums in the Puget Sound Area—including the long-established Seattle Art Museum, Museum of History and Industry, Museum of Flight—may be better known to locals and tourists. But the Seattle region is home to numerous other attractive, informative institutions with special missions that also merit a visit. The Nordic Museum is a terrific place to start.

Designed by the Seattle architecture firm Mithun, this spacious modernist structure features an elegant interplay of dark metal, gleaming glass, and warm wood accents showing fidelity to Swedish and Danish design aesthetics. The building opened with fanfare in May 2018 with the president of Iceland, the crown princess of Denmark, and other dignitaries attending the celebration.

Though Ballard is increasingly culturally diverse as its population expands, the Seattle neighborhood (which was its own city until 1907) retains strong ties to—and is justly proud of—its Scandinavian heritage. In the late 19th century, many immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and elsewhere in the Nordic realm settled in the area. They were especially active in Western Washington’s burgeoning maritime and logging industries.

In the 1980s, some of their descendants founded the Nordic Heritage Museum, housed in a Ballard schoolhouse. Over several decades the museum amassed a large collection of books, artifacts, and other material related to Scandinavian-American life, and served the community with exhibits, performances, and educational events.

But the new Nordic Museum (which dropped the “heritage” from its name) is expanding on that mission. And the building itself, which cost about $50 million in donated funds, is a real dazzler.

A tall, gleaming structure measuring some 57,000 square feet, it welcomes you into its airy environs via a sweeping, two-story walkway dubbed Fjord Hall. A dramatic 34-foot, floor-to-ceiling bas-relief map near the entrance depicts the entire Scandinavian region, from Denmark and Norway to Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

“Our old facility focused on the immigration experience from Scandinavia to America,” says Nordic Museum executive director Eric Nelson. “We decided in the new museum to take a slightly larger look at the topic. We really wanted to expand the idea of looking at Nordic history and culture in both the American and the European contexts.”

One of two clean-lined, spacious upstairs galleries encapsulates Nordic history through film, artifacts, touch-screen interactive tools, and narrative displays, tracing this part of the world from its geologic origins through the Viking period and into the present. Cross either of two upstairs bridges that link to another long gallery, and you’ll discover the fascinating story of Scandinavians in the Pacific Northwest through archival photographs and colorful, informative exhibit material.

Downstairs there are more exhibits along the “fjord.” And if you look up, you’ll see the dazzling stained glass seabird sculptures created for the museum by Nordic artist Tróndur Patursson from the Faroe Islands. Nearby are galleries for temporary shows. Eagerly anticipated this fall is “The Vikings Begin”—a major show of ancient artifacts from Scandinavia’s Viking Era (700 AD to 1100), including intricately wrought armor and weaponry, glass objects and jewelry, with some pieces dating back 1,200 years. The exhibit comes here from Sweden’s Uppsala University.

The Nordic Museum also hosts a range of film screenings and lectures as well as performing arts events (Scandinavian music, folk dancing, and even Nordic punk rock) in a wood-lined performance space. (One popular holdover from the old facility: the Soup and Cinema series, which serve up hearty soups and films from Scandinavian countries, with English subtitles.) Other resources include a museum shop, a library, an expanding oral history collection, and the pleasant lobby café.

One goal of the museum is to show how the values of Nordic culture resonate and influence this region’s contemporary values. “We’ve tried to really focus on themes that are universal—core values like innovation, connection to nature, social justice,” Nelson explains.

It is the exploration of those values—in the Nordic world and our own area—that make the Nordic Museum not only a blast from the past, but a place of modern relevance as well.

The Nordic Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is $15/adults and $12/seniors (65 and up), with free admission to all on first Thursdays of each month. Low-cost parking is available. The museum is located at 2655 N.W. Market St., Seattle. Phone: 206-789-5707. Website: www.nordicmuseum.org

Misha Berson writes about the arts for The Seattle Times and many other publications, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).

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