The American Dream of Norway
Photo exhibit opens at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum
TERJE M. HASLE JORANGER, PH.D
Director, Norwegian Emigrant Museum
On June 25, photojournalist Ingerid Jordal opened her exhibit “The American Dream of Norway” at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. The photos are displayed in the basement of the Bjorgo house, an old residential house, which was moved from Highlandville near Decorah, Iowa, to the museum grounds a few years ago. In her exhibit, she portrays Norwegian Americans in their 20s and 30s from the Seattle area and how they regard the societies in the United States and Norway, respectively. The exhibit is touring Norway in 2020, the year of the presidential election in the Unites States.
Their perspectives are seen in light of their own Norwegian origin and their upbringing in the United States. However, they all share a sentiment that Norway is meaningful for them and all share a vision and a dream about Norway that they keep alive in various manners. In her exhibit, Jordal poses the following questions: What is typically Norwegian to a Norwegian American? What can those of us who live in Norway learn about ourselves and what we term “Norwegian culture” through the lens of Norwegian Americans?
The photo exhibit is very much in tune with the focus of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, namely to present various aspects connected to the Norwegian emigrant experience and the ties between Norwegian emigrants and their offspring with Norway. The exhibit is of particular interest to the museum, as it ties Norwegian emigration history to present-day society of the United States. It is relevant due to its contemporary focus, but it also has an interest to visitors based on the fact that it depicts young Norwegian Americans, and because it shows a study area outside the traditional Midwestern states.
In addition to its theme, the opening of the photo exhibit is significant for the museum in opening up to the outside world and to fill a void in museum activities. An exhibit on the Norwegian America Line at the museum was discontinued in 2019, and COVID-19 struck in March of this year. Therefore, the museum has been closed from March 12 until the opening of the summer season on June 25. The opening of the summer season thus coincided with the opening of the exhibit, which is open during the summer season until August 16.
An important message in Jordal’s exhibit is to portray how a historical past unites individuals in the United States and Norway today. In addition, she wants to show that common ancestry is a way of finding common ground in a world that is slowly becoming more and more polarized. The photo exhibit thus reflects the ties that exist between the offspring of Norwegian immigrants in the United States and Norway.
Norwegian immigrants settled in the Upper Midwest from the 1830s and moved onward in a westward migration process, which reached the Puget Sound area including Seattle during the end of the 19th century. Many of these migrants moved from their initial destination in the Upper Midwest and relocated in the Pacific Northwest. Later, immigrants arrived directly to the region from Norway until at least the 1960s, but some also arrived later.
In spite of the time period that has elapsed since Norwegian immigration, Jordal found that the past is still very alive in urban cities, including Seattle—and that it unites us. It is her goal for people to find common ground, for people to care about each other. One manner in which people can find common ground today is through common ancestry. According to Jordal, this exhibit displays how individuals perceive “how things are in the United States and how they are, or at least are perceived to be, in Norway…. One by one, they are individual experiences, but as a sum, they can perhaps show a connection.”
Jordal also portrays to what extent the Norwegian heritage influences the political views of the individuals who are part of the exhibit. She found that some of the participants had liberal views and adhered to the principles of the Norwegian welfare state, while others were more critical toward these principles. Regardless of their political affiliation, “all made an impression, and none left me indifferent,” she said. “Andreas changed his name and impressed me a lot by his determination. Siri made me understand more about why Trump was elected (this is a puzzle to many Scandinavians), Andy made me realize why the Norwegian Americans long for belonging, Rachel made me a little homesick when playing Hardanger fiddle, and Lars made laugh! I am so grateful to everyone I met. It was an adventure.”
Because of COVID-19, Jordal had to delay the opening of her exhibit and put it online first. She did this with the support of the members of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, who also helped to facilitate the interviews in Seattle. But, of course, she was glad to finally put the photos on display physically with visitors.
“It definitely feels more of an event,” she said. “I loved doing an online exhibition and solving the challenges that followed, but then you don’t get to meet the people looking at it: I really missed that. Also, there is something about physical presence in front of an image that I believe will give a stronger experience than looking at a virtual exhibition.”
Jordal is hoping for one more venue after Norwegian Emigrant Museum, which ends in August. The exhibition is relevant until the election in November.
“I would like to show the exhibition in the United States, especially Seattle,” she said.
The American Dream of Norway exhibit can be viewed online at draumenomnorge.no/en.
To learn more about the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, visit: utvandrermuseet.no/en.
See also “The Norwegian Emigrant Museum brings history alive” by Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger, The Norwegian American, Oct. 18, 2019.
This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.