Bringing Nordic culture to America
How Eric Nelson connected with his heritage to build a bridge between two worlds
On May 5, 2018, the National Nordic Museum in Seattle opened its doors to the public. And today, two-and-a-half years later, it shines as one of the Northwest’s premier cultural venues.
Located on a waterfront street in Ballard, a historic-meets-hip neighborhood, the building is organized around a linear fjord, with walls inside that are faceted and white as glaciers.
A series of wood bridges that direct visitors from one side of the exhibits to another also serve as a visual metaphor for the voyages of immigrants between Nordic countries and the United States, as well as the historic and ongoing cultural exchange between the two places.
As the CEO of the National Nordic Museum, Eric Nelson plays the role of a human bridge between the two cultures, according to his cohorts in the museum and the Nordic community. The opening of the museum marked the culmination of a 15-year process, during which Nelson and his team developed, designed, financed and constructed the new museum facility that now serves as a cultural institution dedicated to sharing and preserving the identity of Nordic and Nordic-American people.
In August 2018, Nelson’s efforts were acknowledged by the Vasa Order of America, a Swedish-American fraternal, cultural, and educational organization. He was named Swedish American of the Year for the contribution he has made to the Nordic American community.
On receiving the plaque engraved with his name, he said:
“I’m humbled to be the recipient of these honors,” Nelson said. “All of our volunteers, staff, and donors have worked so hard to introduce visitors from around the world to Nordic culture and arts.”
Staying true to his Scandinavian roots, Nelson maintained a Nordic decorum of “Janteloven,” which puts society ahead of the individual and discourages boasting about individual accomplishments.
The National Nordic Museum is the only museum in the United States that showcases the impact and influence of Nordic values and innovation on contemporary American society. Besides exhibiting art and objects, the museum serves as an important community gathering place in Seattle, offering a range of programs and hosting special events, including concerts, lectures, film screenings, culinary and traditional folk culture shows.
According to the museum’s 2017 annual report, over 3,075 people attended the public programs and more than 400 volunteers participated at the events. By 2019, the number of visitors for the year jumped to more than 140,000, with 243 active volunteers.
Sandra Nestorovic, the museum’s chief of staff, said Nelson has played a pivotal role in turning the museum into a cultural hub. She credits his success to his fluid and dynamic leadership style and his willingness to embrace creativity and innovation in the workplace.
“It’s wonderful to work with someone as warm, authentic, and high-energy as Nelson is,” she said.
As a California native, Nelson said he did not have significant exposure to Scandinavian culture until he moved to Seattle as an adult.
“I grew up in Napa for the most part where 20% of the population were Italian-American and 3% Scandinavian-American,” he said. “I also lived overseas in Africa for a few years. It was a big shift moving to Seattle, where 18% of the population is of Nordic origin.”
Tall, broad-shouldered, and deep-voiced, it is hard to ignore hints of Nelson’s Viking genetics. His family came to Kansas from Sweden in the 1870s. Most later left Kansas and scattered around other parts of the United States, including Florida and California.
Nelson said that although his family left Sweden to pursue new opportunities in America, their Swedish heritage and values remained an important part of their lives and were passed on generation to generation.
“My dad’s mother’s family settled in Colorado,” he said. “They were all working in the mines in the southwest area. We would go back to my grandmother’s place in the summers and Christmas, and stay connected to Swedish tradition in that way. Being Swedish-American became an important layer in my overall identity. It overlays on my identity as a Californian.”
Nelson’s Nordic origins galvanized him to educate and inform the American community about Nordic heritage and values when he joined the Nordic Museum as CEO in January 2008. In his first year, he got straight to work, coordinating with a concept design team to begin shaping a vision for the new museum.
Originally founded in 1980 as the Nordic Heritage Museum, the museum was housed in a red-brick building that was occupied by an elementary school from 1908 until 1979. In 2018, the museum was renamed the Nordic Museum and it moved into a new 57,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility.
Nelson oversaw the move and expansion of the museum into its $52.5 million facility. The fundraising efforts initiated by him and his team attracted over 1,150 donors to fund the building of the new premises. In 2017, the museum earned $728,000 in revenue from donations and grants, which comprised more than half of its total revenue of nearly $1.4 million.
As part of the public campaign to raise funds and awareness of the new museum, Nelson and members of the board and staff created a 2008 promotional video, which shared their vision for the future museum. Over the next decade, efforts continued to raise funds for the new museum and contributions came from all corners, from clubs, organizations, private individuals, companies, and foundations.
Sanne Houby-Nielsen, Director of Nordiska museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm, Sweden, who has worked with Nelson on several occasions, described Nelson as an inspiring leader, who easily wins friendships and support.
“He has an impressive capacity to attract major funding,” Nielson said. “His efforts and contribution to the Scandinavian community cannot be understated.”
After the new museum opened in 2018, instead of the 100,000 visitors they hoped they would attract its first year, 182,000 people walked between its white, fjord-modeled walls. Nelson said that to generate this uptick in interest, they had to engage in extensive research.
“The old museum was built around stories of immigrants, which is a critical part of the story,” he said. “However, a lot of the narrative was 100 years or older, and it was difficult for non-Nordic people to engage in that journey. We had to make it more relatable to them.”
Before building the new museum, Nelson and his team organized focus groups, which included both Nordics and non-Nordics, where participants were asked what was really relevant to them about Nordic culture when it comes to contemporary American society.
The feedback from the focus groups was instrumental in sourcing and curating the museum’s 77,000-object collection, as well as numerous artifacts on loan from leading museums in the Nordic region.
The exhibits and events encompass 12,000 years of Nordic history and culture of all five Nordic countries, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, as well as the indigenous Sámi people of northern Scandinavia.
What was most important to Nelson was for the museum to express the core values of Nordic culture and make those relatable to Americans. “We had to broaden the story by finding touch points that would make it more engaging to visitors and serve as a conveyer on critical issues,” Nelson explained.
In addition to showcasing Scandinavia’s co-operative, practical and egalitarian society and government, Nelson said that it was essential to focus on the common values that the Nordic countries shared with the United States to attract visitors.
“We honed in on five common core values: openness, sustainability, compassion, innovation, and trust,” Nelson said. “These are aspirational values that are important for us to be talking about. They bring significant issues around economic development, environmental policy, innovation and societal issues to the forefront.”
The museum is affiliated with 50 national Nordic organizations, from Swedish clubs to the Sons of Norway and the Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Nelson said that his position as chief executive at the National Nordic Museum has given him the platform to forge a strong connection to the Scandinavian community.
“I serve on the Swedish Council of America, and that keeps me involved at a national level,” he said. “I’m often meeting with the five embassies in Washington, D.C. I also visit Sweden and other Nordic countries twice a year to connect with foreign ministries, artists, and cultural organizations.”
The 2018 opening of the museum was attended by Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, the foreign minister of Denmark, and the president of Iceland. Nelson said it was a moving experience to present the museum to such prominent figures and the community.
“This is something that we’d been dreaming about for years and years,” he said, “and finally we opened the doors to a community that had supported this for so long. Giving them an opportunity to come in and enjoy the fruits of our labor was just an overwhelming feeling.”
In February 2019, legislation that designated the Nordic Museum as the National Nordic Museum was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. Nelson said that he plans to capitalize on that title to bring more awareness on a national level.
“It’s truly an honor to get all the recognition—but the work still continues,” he said. “It’s just an inspiration for me to work a little harder and keep things moving forward.”
The National Nordic Museum is currently open in compliance with Washington State’s “Safe Start” protocols. Timed tickets must be reserved before arriving. To learn more, visit: www.nordicmuseum.org.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.