Exploring the collections of Vesterheim online

Virtual galleries open up a window to the past and present


A wooden chest from Os, Hordaland, Norway, dates to about 1864. It was probably made by Nils Midthus or Ola Lien Midtbø. The inscription reads: Martha Karina Hans Datter Koldal(?) 1864.

Synneva Bratland
The Norwegian American

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is home to more than 59,000 objects, buildings, artworks, documents, and photographs. A visit to the museum provides a unique opportunity to personally explore and learn from a variety of cultural artifacts.

However, if you don’t live just a short drive from Decorah, getting to a small town in northwestern Iowa can be a long and expensive process. Thankfully, through extensive virtual galleries, much of the museum collection can be viewed online from anywhere.

The Vesterheim Virtual Galleries are a particularly good representation of older, more traditional aspects of Norwegian-American culture, as the online collections do not include any work by living artists.

Favorite finds

Some of my favorite finds in Vesterheim’s virtual galleries include:

A needlework kit in the shape of a fish. Made from segments of silver, the little fish even moves as if it were alive. The kit was crafted in 1790 to hold a parlor sewing kit containing needles and thread. The previous home of the kit was in the parsonage of Norwegian pastor Ove Jakob Hjort, who immigrated with his family from Oslo to Waterville, Iowa, in 1862.

A turned wooden bowl created by Bergljot Lunde from Sand, Norway. The bowl is painted olive green and covered with Rogaland rosemaling in brown, orange, blue, yellow, and white. It was said to be the first green bowl Lunde produced.

bowl rosemaling

A wooden bowl was painted by Bergliot Lunde with Rogeland-style rosemaling in 1968.

A photo of attendees at the Sons of Norway “Fun Frolic” in Lanesboro, Minn., on Feb. 2, 1939. In a variety of costumes ranging from traditional bunads to bowties and silly hats, the 40 frolickers pose for a group photo.

A photo of the Lanesboro Sons of Norway “Hard Times” party on April 17, 1947. This photo was taken in the exact same spot as the aforementioned frolickers and shows almost 70 individuals dressed in everything from overalls and a fake beard to headscarves to an old top hat and tie. Several women’s faces are blurred­—they were laughing too hard to stand still.

A wooden cake server carved with incredible detail. The server has roughly 1 foot long and 4 inches wide and was created in Norway around 1850. The handle is slightly concave, curved, and twisted, with acanthus open work around the base and end of the handle. The wood has a caramel color to it, and the leaves catch the light beautifully.

wood carving spoon

A wooden cake server, carved with incredible detail, was created in Norway around 1850.

Civil War database

Vesterheim also has a Civil War database, containing information on life and service for many Norwegian-born Civil War soldiers. This is a wonderful resource, although it can still be very difficult to find information on a specific individual. The “Soldiers’ Names” tab explains that many Norwegians used one name in Norway, another in the army, and a third after the war. Spellings were inconsistent, and many soldiers switched from being identified by their father’s name to being identified by their farm name. Additionally, at the time of the war, Norway was officially a part of Sweden. Unsurprisingly, this led to many Norwegian-born soldiers being listed as born in Sweden.

But, with some intentional and informed searching—and possibly the willingness to piece together a puzzle or two—the database can shed light on the stories of many soldiers. The over 11,000 entries can commonly include information such as place of residence in the United States, birth date and location, parents, date of immigration, hair color, eye color, complexion, height, build, military company and rank, family, cause of death, date of death, and burial location.

painting Gausta

The painting “Grace Before the Meal “ (1880–1889) by Herbjørn Gausta from Telemark, Norway, features the interior of a Norwegian home. The empty chair is taken to refer to a father who has gone to America, while the family waits for him to send funds so they can join him.

Nordic: Norwegian-American Digital Catalog

The third component of Vesterheim’s online collection is a catalog of its archival holdings with Luther College, called Nordic: Norwegian-American Digital Catalog. Very little of the materials in Nordic are digitized at this point, but the catalog can easily tell users where to physically locate exactly the information they are looking for.

All in all, the databases provide a lively and in-depth look at the lives and histories of Norwegian Americans from years past. Whether you’re looking to dive into family history, get an understanding of Civil War era life, or just get a laugh out of the fact that people a century ago went all out for themed parties, too, the digital archives are a great place to land.

The Vesterheim databases can be found at vesterheim.org/collections-research.

All images courtesy of Vesterheim

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.