Anders Sandvig’s gift

Remembering and reconnecting to Norwegian heritage at Vesterheim

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
The exhibits at Vesterheim take you on a journey into the past, as you follow the Norwegian immigrants to the New World and their new life in the Midwest.

Decorah, Iowa

One way to learn about an institution is through the stories of the dedicated people at its core. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, has had many passionate and knowledgeable staff members, volunteers, and supporters. One of the more surprising relationships, perhaps, was with Anders Sandvig, a Norwegian museum pioneer who never visited, yet whose contributions can be seen in Vesterheim’s collections, exhibitions, and programs still today. 

Sandvig is best known as the founder of Maihaugen Museum in Lillehammer, Norway. Born in 1862 in Romsdal, he would have been a fisherman like his father, but he suffered from seasickness. Instead, he became a dentist, opening his own practice in Lillehammer in 1885.   

Vesterheim - Anders Sandvig

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim
An antique horse hame with intricate detail is one of the 6,000 tools found in the collections at Vesterheim.

His practice served all of Gudbrandsdal. He developed an increasing appreciation for rural culture, folk art, and architecture, so he started to collect objects—even buildings, which he moved into his backyard. Sandvig soon began a more systematic approach to collecting, with examples of different types of houses that illustrated changes in architecture over time and the range of farms from small to large. 

In 1901, Sandvig sold his collection to the Lillehammer town council. Maihaugen, a location on the hillside above Lillehammer, became the new home for Sandvig’s collection and the name for the museum that opened to the public in 1904. Sandvig would serve as director of Maihaugen until 1946. Maihaugen was the first open-air museum in Europe with complete farmsteads, and it remains one of the most comprehensive.

Sandvig was also fascinated with handwork. He assembled both special-occasion pieces and the ordinary objects that showed a variety of techniques in construction and decoration. He even recreated the workshops of the skilled crafters who were important to small communities all over Norway.   

His systematic collection and preservation of rural architecture and material culture was the model for regional museums throughout Norway. His role in the history of the museum that is now Vesterheim was different but significant. Through Sandvig, 400 objects were sent as gifts from Norway to become the core of Vesterheim’s folk-art collection.  

The collection that makes up Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum had begun at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, in 1877. In the early years, the Luther College Museum held an assortment of natural history specimens, ethnographic items brought back by Lutheran missionaries, historical relics, mementoes, and reproductions of classical artworks. Several professors, who felt that the memory of their immigrant parents should be remembered, began to collect objects from the American pioneer period and pushed for a plan to guide the direction and growth of the museum.

That plan included collecting and preserving examples of Norwegian fine and domestic art brought by immigrant families, items that were made by immigrants, and literary works published by Norwegians in America. The Luther College Museum also had an architectural collection. A single building was moved to the college campus in 1913, making the museum in Decorah the first institution in the United States to collect and preserve buildings by moving them to a museum setting.  

Dr. Knut Gjerset, professor of history and Norwegian language, served as curator for 16 years. Early in his tenure, Gjerset wrote to Sandvig and sent him a publication about the museum in Decorah. Sandvig was impressed with the young museum and decided to organize a gift to honor the century of Norwegian emigration in 1925.

Vesterheim - Anders Sandvig

Photos: Lori Ann Reinhall
Vesterheim is home to one of the most extensive rosemaling collections in the world, and its folk art school is internationally recognized.

Sandvig’s gift consisted of 153 objects and books from his own collection and objects from several other museums, including Norsk Folkemuseum, Hallingdal Museum, and Nordmøre Museum. Sandvig intended to give “the emigrated Norway” a glimpse of the old culture. He also sent furnishings for a Norwegian house, so that visitors could have a fully immersive experience. Gjerset had wanted to offer this kind of experience but had not had the right kinds of large objects for authenticity.

Among the gifts from Norway are stunningly beautiful examples of woodcarving, embroidery, rosemaling, and silversmithing. We can admire the beauty, and we can look more deeply at the handwork used to create and decorate them. These objects, however, are not the only legacy of the relationship between Anders Sandvig and Vesterheim Museum. The technical skill and artistry of the gifts and other examples of folk art inspire us today and serve as the basis of hands-on classes. Since 1967, Vesterheim has offered classes with Norwegian and American instructors in a variety of folk-art techniques and cultural traditions, including food, dance, and music. More than 600 students came in 2019 to learn from the collection and talented instructors.

The museum separated from Luther College and became an independent institution in 1964 and adopted the name Vesterheim to honor the immigrants. When writing home to family and friends in Norway, the immigrants had described America as vesterheim, their western home. The logo for Vesterheim, since 1971, was taken from a tankard sent by Sandvig. The sun motifs on the side, traditionally used to symbolize light, warmth, goodness, and good luck, seemed appropriate to represent a museum that has benefited from the kindness of many generous Norwegian museums. Vesterheim is working with the international design firm Snøhetta on a new visual identity to graphically unite history and the future and show the global reach of a Decorah institution. 

Although Vesterheim added its first historic building before the relationship with Anders Sandvig, the appreciation for Maihaugen’s open-air collection helped to highlight the importance for museums around the world to preserve architecture. Vesterheim has 12 structures, including houses, mills, a church, and a school. The setting for these buildings, Vesterheim Heritage Park, is undergoing landscaping and enhancement with interpretive signage and artisanal touches, offering a beautiful place for visitors and residents to relax, gather, and learn.

Sandvig thought that a museum could help immigrants remember their homeland. But a museum collection can do so much more. We can explore how traditions live and breathe and move forward into the future. We can compare, contrast, and celebrate each culture’s traditions. Folk art offers connections and community for everyone at every age. It, like Vesterheim, offers history, art, tradition, innovation, learning, inspiration, and future.

To learn more about Vesterheim, visit

Laurann Gilbertson holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in textiles and clothing from Iowa State University. She has been at Vesterheim for 29 years as chief curator and textile curator.

This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.