Keeping it cozy and fun

Norway House takes its programming online

Bli hjemme

LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, it sent shockwaves across the Norwegian-American community from coast to coast. From one day to the next, museums and cultural centers had to shut their doors and cancel events. Usual streams of revenue were interrupted, as organizations scrambled to restructure their programs. Even the day-to-day logistics of a regular workday had to be rethought for health concerns. 

The impact at Norway House in Minneapolis was fast and hard. Months of planning had gone into coordinating a presence at the Cross-Country Ski World Cup (canceled in the 11th hour), and a major exhibit showcasing the new Oleana knitwear collection from Bergen had just opened in the center’s gallery. As we looked forward to cover these events, flights booked and our Norwegian sweaters packed, our team at The Norwegian American shared this disappointment.

All of a sudden, “bli hjemme”—stay home—was the order of the day. We all soon realized we would have to move in new, different directions. In the case of The Norwegian American, we quickly shifted our editorial calendar, as we watched Norway House and other Nordic organizations pivot online. And nearly six months later, we are happy to report that through creativity and commitment, our community is coming through the crisis and even seeing new benefits from new ways of working.

Ethan Bjellend

Photo courtesy of Ethan Bjelland
Ethan Bjelland, marketing and communications manager at Norway House, is the mastermind behind the “Bli hjemme!” online program.

Recently, I checked in with Ethan Bjelland, marketing and communications manager at Norway House, to learn more about how things have been going.  Ethan is one of the masterminds behind Norway House’s online programming, managing a space on their website appropriately called—yes, you guessed it—“Bli hjemme!” with ideas and activities for “keeping it koselig + staying home” (www.norwayhouse.org/stay-home). 

“Our online programming is all about things that you can do at home,” said Bjelland. “When COVID-19 hit, many of our members were wondering what they would do, and we wanted to serve as best as possible.” Suddenly there were no more monthly member breakfasts, Norway House’s cozy café was closed, and there were no festive exhibit openings, where members could mingle. Norway House is by all measures a very friendly place, and bringing this atmosphere online would be a formidable challenge.

Fortunately, Bjelland and his team members had something to build on. The Oleana opening had been very successful, so there was some excitement and momentum to leverage, and one of their first online events was a webinar with Matilda Norberg, head of design at Oleana and Gerda Sørhus Fuglerud, CEO and owner of the company. The Norway House exhibit was also put online, along with other information about the products and key players. With this event, their web stats were blown off the charts, and Norway House was off to a great start with their enhanced online presence.

The Norway House team drew on its experience to put together a more complete offering of activities that includes streaming lists, language learning resources, books and audiobooks, arts and crafts, and new content is being added on an ongoing basis. They reached out to friends in the community and asked them about their favorite films and podcasts, and Bjelland drew on years of experience teaching Norwegian at neighboring Mindekirken and Concordia Language Villages, where he started learning Norwegian at age 6.

One of my favorite pages is “News from Norway,” which provides links to websites that provide up-to-date information on the coronavirus and major publications, both in Norwegian and English (including The Norwegian American). While many online newspapers are behind a paywall, the page provides a comprehensive overview for the curious to sample.

While you are enjoying a good cup of coffee while reading the morning newspaper, there is also music to enjoy. Bjelland, a music lover and popular performer, presents you with the Norwegian Top 40, dance-party music, children’s songs, or simply easy (Norwegian) listening. 

“It’s important that people are not sitting behind their computers all the time,” said Bjelland. He pointed out that you can be active in your own home while listening to music or even singing along. There are also games to play and cooking demos to follow in the kitchen. “It’s all about having some fun,” he said.

Bli hjemme!” focuses on cultural competence, and there are special sections for holidays. Things were up and running for Easter and Norwegian Constitution Day, and a special blog for Christmas will be built out.  And of course, there are crafts to make around these special occasions and more tips and links on how to celebrate in a genuinely norsk way.

Bringing an entire organization’s programming online precipitates a steep learning curve, but for Norway House, the extra effort required to make this happen has paid off. They have seen an increase in both memberships and donations, and this year’s online fundraising gala in June exceeded expectations. Even though everyone in the world seems to be online these days, Norway House is still seeing an uptick in website visitors.

“We’ve realized that our outreach goes well beyond the Twin Cities region,” said Bjelland, who stresses the importance of collaboration on a wider scale. “It’s not about competition with other Norwegian groups,” he explained. He and his team love to talk about what’s going on in New York or Seattle, as they work toward more partnerships across the greater community.

As lockdown restrictions ease up, the approach to programming will undergo modifications as the situation dictates. The Baldishol Tapestry exhibit on display through Sept. 25 successfully opened online, but it is now also possible to schedule a private appointment to see the exhibit in person.

“In a crisis, you are forced to find new opportunities,” said Bjelland, which is exactly what he and his colleagues have done. While it has been a formidable challenge, they have developed new skills to employ once the COVID-19 threat is finally a thing of the past. “Out of lemons, you have to make lemonade,” he said, which is what Norway House has done as they’ve pivoted online to reach new successes.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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