The Norwegian Emigrant Museum brings history alive
A museum relevant in society
Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger, Ph.D.
Director, The Norwegian Emigrant Museum
The Norwegian Emigrant Museum (Norsk utvandrermuseum) in Ottestad in Stange near Hamar is the only museum in Norway that focuses in its entirety on emigration from Norway to all parts of the world. In this respect, the museum collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits documentation about those who became immigrants in another country. The museum seeks to understand the general processes connected to the migration movement and relate not only to emigration but also to returned migration and immigration to Norway.
Origins of the museum
The idea to form an emigrant museum originates from the involvement of Nordmanns-Forbundet (Norwegians Worldwide) in the 1914 centennial commemoration exhibit of the Norwegian constitution in the Frogner Park in Christiania. The organization had been formed seven years earlier with the aim to “encompass Norwegians wherever they might find themselves in the world.” As a result, members of this organization came up with a vision to form an emigrant museum in Norway to “shed light over the life and working conditions of our fellow emigrated countrymen in foreign surroundings.” Time went by, and in 1955, a log cabin was moved from Kindred, N.D., to the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo. This cabin became the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. A combination of Norwegian-based and Norwegian-American organizations were all instrumental in bringing the cabin to Norway. These included the Nordmanns-Forbundet, Sons of Norway, Bygdelagenes Fellesraad, and the Consul General of Norway in Minneapolis.
The Norwegian Emigrant Museum has moved several times. In 1972, the museum moved to become a part of the Hedmarkmuseet in Hamar, presently the Domkirkeodden Museum. The museum later became a separate chapter, and in 1988, became an independent unit. The museum moved to its present location at Ottestad in 1996 following a flood the previous year. By this time, several buildings had been moved from the Midwest to the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. In 2010, the museum became consolidated as a chapter of Anno Museum, which covers most museums in Hedmark County.
Presently, eight buildings make up the outdoor museum, all of which illustrate the immigrant experience. The buildings include a dwelling from Kindred, N.D.; the Gunderson House from west central Minnesota; the Norwegian Memorial Church from southeastern Minnesota; the Sacquitne barn, the granary, and the Bjorgo/Ingvalson House from northeastern Iowa; and the Leet-Christopher schoolhouse from central South Dakota.
The museum collections contain about 2,000 objects, including textiles and paintings, in addition to 20,000 photos, 9,000 America letters, church records from 2,000 Norwegian-American Lutheran congregations, audiovisual material, interviews, and private archives from various individuals and organizations. The collections also include the archives of Norwegians Worldwide, with a variety of clippings from Norwegian and foreign newspapers, minutes from chapters, and forms from almost 1,000 Norwegian emigrants all over the world.
Children and youth are one of the target audiences of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, and the museum offers several educational tours for schoolchildren and older students. With its location in a recreational area, inhabitants in the local community may join in on its activities. It also welcomes tours from Norway and the United States. In 2019, the museum organized both Alaska Days and a Fourth of July event for the first time, and every other year, the museum takes part in a large dance event called “Dans på stien” (Dance on the Path). The museum also encourages scholars to use the archives, and they are welcome to stay in the museum apartment for a moderate price during their research period. In 2020, the museum will both host the triennial seminar of Norwegian-American Historical Association-Norway and will be involved in the International Sons of Norway Convention in Hamar.
A museum relevant in society
As the collection and interpretation of the Norwegian emigrant experience are core tasks of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, it aims to serve as a relevant and active museum in society. First of all, the museum is focusing on creating awareness about emigration from Norway as a topic in a national, collective consciousness. In other words, the museum’s mission as an objective interpreter of history is to exhibit a partly forgotten chapter of Norwegian emigration to new generations in Norway and in the United States. Second, the portrayal of the Norwegian immigrant experience in the United States and in other immigrant countries is highly relevant in the debate about contemporary immigration to Norway. There are several similar traits between the experience of immigrants from Norway in the United States in the 19th century and those from non-European countries today. The spread of this knowledge adds nuance to the contemporary immigration debate in Norway, which, at times, is polarized.
The museum is secretariat for the bicentennial commemoration of Norwegian emigration to the United States in 2025 and cooperates with Norwegian and Norwegian-American organizations and institutions. By 2025, the museum staff aims to both refurbish its administration building and integrate the entrance with the outdoor museum. It also plans to establish a large, permanent exhibit about Norwegian emigration. In conjunction with the 2025 commemoration, the museum will organize activities with themes connected to Norwegian emigration history, returned migration, and immigration. It has also taken the initiative toward organizing a national writing contest in high schools on the topic of emigration in cooperation with the Norwegian Historical Association and the Free Speech Foundation. The museum is also in touch with institutions with a national thematic focus, including the Stiklestad kulturhistoriske senter (Stiklestad cultural history center) and Eidsvoll 1814 to exchange valuable knowledge on national events.
The Norwegian Emigrant Museum cooperates with cultural and historical organizations and institutions in Norway and the United States. About 80% of the 900,000 – 1 million Norwegian emigrants who left Norway after 1825 went to the United States, although a good number of them returned to Norway later. The United States is central in the museum outreach planning, and the museum aims to expand its international network. In the summer of 2019, the Norwegian Emigrant Museum started an internship cooperation with Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In September and October of 2019, the leadership of the Anno Museum traveled to key institutions in the country, including Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minn., and the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, Wash., to strengthen the ties between these institutions and the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. Based on its mission statement, its activities, and network building, the museum will continue playing a relevant role in society.
For more information on the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, visit www.utvandrermuseet.no/en.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.