The new Nordic Museum opens in Seattle
A weekend of speeches and musical performances marks the much-awaited opening
The “new” Nordic Museum opened with fanfare in Seattle on the weekend of May 4-5, after an exhausting two weeks of last-minute finishing details, hosting donor and community receptions, offering member previews, running a “cultural community breakfast,” and putting on a gala and barbecue for visiting dignitaries and bigwigs.
I enjoyed watching Brandur Patursson help his Faroese father, artist Tróndur Patursson, hang his tremendous blue-glass birds high above the central hallway, or “fjord,” at the top of a scissors lift. The two are quiet men from the self-governing archipelago of Denmark that shares history with the Irish, Old Norse, Vikings, Norwegians, and Danes. I marveled at overhearing them speak the modern Faroese derivative of Old West Norse, similar to modern Icelandic.
At the breakfast—a panel discussion with fruit and pastries provided—I heard First Lady of Iceland Eliza Reid speak about the importance of maintaining strong connections between the Nordic countries and the United States and Canada, as we were strongly linked in the past and that continues today. I was surprised at Reid’s idiomatic, modern English delivery, until I learned she grew up outside Ottawa, Canada, and attended the University of Toronto. I found her ideas to be engaging and compelling.
At the Opening Ceremony on Saturday, May 5, President of Iceland Guðni Jóhannesson spoke about the common sense of purpose among the Nordic countries and the United States, pronouncing the word “purpose” in the languages of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, The Faroe Islands, and Sápmi. Like his wife, he spoke informally but powerfully about how we build museums to remember our heritage but also embrace the contemporary and the future.Other speakers included Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, ambassadors from Sweden and Finland, the secretary general from the Nordic Council of Ministers, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who initially got introduced as a “mere” state representative—producing several giggles from the crowd and smiles on the dais—earned points in my book for acknowledging that those present from the Nordic countries were formally dressed in suits and dresses. He confessed, seemingly with amused embarrassment, that he wasn’t wearing a tie with his suit in order to stay aligned with typical “Northwest” dress.
Because the podium was facing away from the public, the crowd was clearly pleased when Jóhannesson and a couple of other speakers turned and directly addressed the audience, underscoring not only their right to be at the opening, but the key role they (we) played, and will play, in the birth and future of the museum.
What followed was the ribbon cutting, which the public inexplicably wasn’t allowed to watch. A gaggle of “official” photographers instead were rushed in to form a line blocking everyone’s view. When I asked whether this was some kind of Secret Service or security move, I was told that it wasn’t planned. Given the fairly extensive planning for the opening weekend, this was a strange anomaly.
But the great performances by dancers, musical groups, and even a bit of theater helped to alleviate that. We delighted in the big sound of the 100-person men’s choir Fóstbræður from Iceland, and the small but no less enjoyable local violin ensemble of the Lille Spelmanslag. We enjoyed Reidun Horvei’s rapid-fire “immigrant” Norwegian in her multimedia Migrasong (with translations projected onto a screen), the haunting Sámi yoik of Vokal Nord, and the delightful mix of storytelling and classical piano pieces from Roberta Swedien. Choirs large and small, string and woodwind ensembles, accordionists, dancers, soloists—they opened the museum with joyful sound and movement.
To make this all happen, a staff of just under 30 trained and coordinated some 160 volunteers who served as docents, monitors, gatekeepers, ticket-takers, badge-issuers, and performing artist guides, among other things. Many volunteers have worked for the museum for years, and must have enjoyed showing off the new buildings, exhibits, museum shop, and visiting performers.
The top-notch performers were mostly volunteers too, whether from a Nordic country or the greater Seattle area. Representatives of local Nordic societies, associations, and choirs staffed tables and happily talked about their group to interested visitors. Members of a local Viking reenactment group, Hrafngardr, volunteered to help direct visitors while wearing period costumes. No doubt they’ll also be in force at the museum’s annual Viking Days Festival coming in July.
So now the Nordic embarks on its aspiration of becoming a top-tier museum.
To recruit new generations of volunteers, they’ll need to continue nourishing and supporting those they’ve got and reach out to those who aren’t necessarily of Nordic extraction. To attract performers, authors, and lecturers to the Great Hall, it will need to provide the level of professional production and advertising—to both local and foreign groups—that artists enjoy and expect at other venues. To have the support of the public, it will need to stay relevant to the dramatically changing Ballard neighborhood and the greater Seattle community, and continue the many offerings around the Seattle community as well as at the museum proper. To maintain a professional museum staff, it will need to have strong leadership from the top down, with the visitor experience foremost in mind, and the kind of “servant leadership” that makes staff loyal and long tenured.
The Nordic is on its way to achieving these things. We can help as a community by guiding and holding the museum to its values and vision of the future: innovative, sustainable, and valuing the equity of all persons.
Eric Stavney is graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.