Nature, innovation, space & purpose

Nordic Museum

Photo: Design by Mithun, Image by Mir. Courtesy Nordic Museum
An artist’s rendering of the front of the building as seen from across Market Street.

The Norwegian American gets a sneak peek at Seattle’s new Nordic Museum

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Ten-plus years in the making and with a price tag upwards of $48.9 million, the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Seattle’s state-of-the-art new Nordic Museum is on the calendar for May 5, 2018. Plans for the celebration are well under way, as the staff has already moved in to the new space and construction remains on schedule. The Norwegian American was lucky enough to get an early walkthrough on a rare sunny winter day with CEO Eric Nelson to get a look at what’s to come for the public this spring.

The new museum, designed by the Seattle-San Francisco award-wining firm Mithun (, is located on Ballard’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, nestled between the heart of the business district and the Ballard Locks, one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions. Even from the street, the imposing zinc-clad 57,000-square-foot structure cannot be missed by passers-by. The latest addition to the Burke-Gilman Trail for cyclists, skaters, and runners even goes directly by its front door, past the museum café and gift shop.

Once inside the museum, visitors will experience a world that marks a radical change from the homespun environment of the old Webster School location of 40 years ( In contrast to the vintage schoolhouse, the new structure is characterized by a stark modernism that can be characterized as Nordic and Northwest through and through.

Nordic Museum - Fjord Hall

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
With its sweeping ceilings, Fjord Hall was envisioned to evoke the feeling of the narrow waterways of the Nordic landscape.

Fjord Hall, with its sweeping ceilings, was envisioned to evoke the feeling of the narrow waterways that cut into the mountain and rock formations of the Nordic landscape. There are no square angles, further enhancing the feeling of a flowing waterway. And as throughout the entire building, there are glacier-like snowy white walls, which serve to maximize a sense of spaciousness and light.

And then there is wood—and more wood—so typical of both Scandinavian and Pacific Northwest interiors. Right at the entrance is the high-tech auditorium, which seats 320 for dining or 400 for a lecture or concert. Its walls are clad from top to bottom with vertical strips of Douglas fir and hemlock that add an element of warmth. Together with a $100,000 floor, in part financed by the community’s folk dancers, the walls make for both perfect acoustics and the perfect place to kick up one’s heels. For bright sunny days, the auditorium has a retractable wall that opens into a courtyard that can be set up with tents for larger occasions. The room also boasts a compact modular kitchen for event food service.

CEO Nelson explains that City Catering ( has been selected as the museum’s exclusive caterer and that extensive efforts have been undertaken to ensure that they will provide an authentic culinary experience. A committee of local Nordic food experts was formed to offer their expertise when it comes to both traditional recipes and new Nordic cuisine. City Catering will also operate the museum café, separated from the main hall by a retractable wall, which will allow it to stay open outside of regular operating hours. A bar serving beer, wine, and spirits will offer special Nordic varieties, both imported and local, and the café is expected to be an important source of revenue as both a destination venue and local neighborhood hangout.

Adjacent to the café are the museum shop and admissions and information desk. With expanded square footage, the shop’s offerings of merchandise will be expanded, focusing on authentic, unique gift items from all the Nordic countries.

Nordic Museum information desk and store

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Adjacent to the main information desk is the new museum store, which will offer a uniquely Nordic shopping experience.

But at the heart of the museum will be its collections that tell the Nordic story and how it has influenced the American experience. Directly opposite the admissions desk, a large-scale wall map is being mounted. Visitors will be able to identify where their ancestors came from and orient themselves for their tour through the galleries.

The first stop is directly off Fjord Hall, where temporary exhibits will be housed, and already exciting plans are in place. The opening exhibit is coming in from the prestigious Phillips Collection ( in Washington, D.C., a selection of contemporary pieces from all the Nordic countries, including the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. With a structure that is up-to-date on all current building and fire codes, and with ample storage areas that are fully secured and climate-controlled, there no longer are any physical impediments to bringing in world-class exhibits. There is also ample space with the new gallery of 3,800 square feet, in contrast to the 2,000-square-foot space at the old location.

Nordic Museum Grand Stairase

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Throughout the museum, wood touches break up stark white walls and provide a link to the natural world. This wide main staircase is designed to double as seating for students on school tours.

A grand wooden staircase takes visitors upstairs to the permanent galleries, accessed through the Nordic Orientation Gallery, complete with interactive stations set up for educational purposes. The staircase is large enough to double as seating for the schoolchildren who will visit the building, and as with the auditorium, the wood lends warmth amidst white walls, glass, and concrete.

Once upstairs, visitors enter the Nordic Region Galleries for an introduction to the world of the North, designed to emulate the Nordic environment and how it has shaped its peoples. Several prominent Scandinavian museums have agreed to loan objects to the Nordic Museum, rotating them out every five years, for an experience that will take visitors from the Iron and Bronze Ages through the Viking Age, and up to the times of the Great Emigration to the New World.

It is understood that the journey to America was a long and hard one, symbolized in the building’s architecture with a set of wooden bridges with glass side panels spanning across Fjord Hall to connect the galleries on either side of the building. Crossing over to the Nordic America Gallery is a narrow skybridge, not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.

The Scandinavian-American experience takes one across the continent from the first landing on the East Coast, through the Midwest, and across the Great Prairie onward to the West. Artifacts from the beloved Dream of America exhibit from the old museum will be included, for an experience conceived to reflect the common values of the Nordic countries and the Pacific Northwest: nature, open space, innovation, and social justice. More interactive stations offer an enhanced opportunity for learning, and the galleries are expected to speak to both young and old alike.

Nordic Museum Exhibit Hall

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
At the time of our visit, the museum still had a little unpacking to do. By opening day, this room will hold the first visiting exhibition.

Education has always been a core value of the Nordic Museum and was taken to heart when planning the new facility, as Mithun’s architects engaged in deep focus sessions with the staff to determine how spaces could be best designed for their purposes. This resulted in a crafts area with a space for serious woodworking, classrooms, and a new learning center, including a recording studio for the museum’s oral-history project.

The Scandinavian Language Institute will continue its instruction as usual, and the rooms will also be available as meeting rooms for other Nordic organizations and the greater community at large. Bright and spacious, they offer modern A/V equipment, and their walls have even been treated with a special substance to double as whiteboards.

One of the more interesting areas of the museum is the staff office on the south side of the building with its expansive view of Salmon Bay and shipyards and industries that built up old Ballard. This is the core base that laid the economic foundation for the community that with its generosity has turned the museum dream into a reality. This open vista with its historical connection cannot be experienced from the ground level courtyard terrace, and one only wishes that this same integration of indoors and outdoors could have been part of the museum’s public spaces.

Light and airy, the open-office concept was designed to facilitate teamwork and communication for a staff that is facing a heavy workload in upcoming years. The new building will have increased operating expenses, and there will be a need for more compelling programming to drive traffic and motivate donors. Program Manager Jonathan Sajda optimistically sees this as opportunity. Many programs such as the Soup & Cinema series had already outgrown the old space, and the new facility makes possible events that will draw in the surrounding community. While traditional offerings will be increased and enhanced, there are plans for innovative programs including rock and pop concerts with the aim of reflecting the contemporary cultural scene of Scandinavia.

Nordic Museum staff

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Program Manager Jonathan Sajda (right) is working closely with Volunteer Coordinator Michael Ide (left) and Staff Resource Coordinator Mollie Henry (center) to ensure that all details are in place for the Nordic Museum Grand Opening on May 5.

As yet one can only imagine what things will look like once the exhibits are in place, but if the current progress at the new Nordic Museum is any indication, visitors will be in for a treat when the museum opens to the public on May 5. All things indicate that great attention is being paid to detail—more specifically, Nordic detail—from the installation of high-end Finnish elevators to Danish modern light fixtures. There are still many areas to be finished, including the garden off Fjord Hall, but the museums’ treasured vintage Nordic Spirit Viking ship is already in place. A vintage Finnish sauna house is also installed, where once inside, the hustle-and-bustle of the surrounding street traffic disappears.

When asked what is unique about the new Nordic Museum, CEO Eric Nelson answered without hesitation, “Everything!” Yet Nelson knows that over the years some compromises had to be made in the project and that there will be ongoing challenges to meet. With only 75 parking spaces at the museum, he is working with a local parking-lot conglomerate to make arrangement for more cars, as Seattle gradually makes the transition to comprehensive public transportation.

But like the museum, Seattle is looking toward the future, and the future is bright. On May 5, all roads will lead to the new Nordic Museum, and there is no doubt that everyone, Nordic and non-Nordic alike, is in for a big celebration of a new community landmark and important addition to the Seattle cultural landscape.

For more information on the new Nordic Museum, visit

Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.