Vesterheim, a cultural destination for all Americans
For Norway with love
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, in the city of Decorah in Winneshiek County in northeastern Iowa, explores the immigrant experience and keeps alive Norwegian folk-art traditions, finding a balance between preserving the past and embracing the future. It is no less than a national treasure.
I know this from personal experience. When I began my research about an unknown Norwegian immigrant photographer, Ole S. Leeland, who worked in South Dakota in the early 1900s, my first visit was to Vesterheim.
As a Ph.D. graduate and adjunct professor in folk-art studies at New York University in New York City, I was eager to view the material culture of Norway, but I also was just beginning to research Leeland’s photography. I had already learned from the U.S. census that Leeland was born in Norway.
In a meeting with Darrell D. Henning, curator in 2000, as I talked, he took a book off his shelf and immediately found a reference to Leeland. With that bit of additional information, I set forward on my journey that now has lasted some 25 years. It has taken me to Norway where I gave talks at NAHA-Norge (Det norsk-amerikanske historielaget i Norge) conferences, to NAHA (Norwegian American Historical Association), another organization in this country, where I served on the board of trustees, and will culminate in a book and an exhibition focusing on my collection of 1,000 items.
The origin of Norwegian immigration to America began when a sloop set sail from Stavanger in July 1825. Bound for New York, it would take 96 days to arrive with plus one “sloopers” on board who left Norway in search of religious freedom and land (the plus one was a baby born on board). Cleng Peerson, called the “father of Norwegian emigration,” was not among the sloop’s passengers, because he was already on the pier in New York City waiting to welcome the crew and passengers to their new homeland.
“America has been greatly benefited by this almost incessant exodus [from Norway]; for the Norse peasants have, without an exception, made splendid citizens, the best, in fact, that have come to us from Europe,” Ohio journalist Ethlyn T. Clough wrote in 1909.
Between 1825 and 1990, almost 900,000 people emigrated from Norway; most of them came to the Midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois. Newspapers and associations held together groups of Norwegian Americans. People joined for various reasons, such as mutual aid and support but certainly to socialize with like-minded people.
Historian Odd Lovoll writes, “They were a substitute for the old tradition-bound life, for family and kinfolk, and for neighbors in the home community.” All in all, from traditional foods and community organizations to the contributions of an engaged and active citizenry, the Norwegian immigrant and following generations have made and continue to make a distinctive contribution in American society.
The collections that make up the Vesterheim Museum began in 1877 at Luther College, Decorah’s Norwegian-American institution. Anders Sandvig, the force behind Maihaugen, the museum founded in 1904 in Lillehammer, was impressed with what Luther College had done and organized a gift of 100 plus items to honor the century of Norwegian emigration in 1925. Consequently, the museum separated from Luther College in 1964 and became Vesterheim, “western home” in the Norwegian language.
Today, Vesterheim comprises 12 buildings. Heritage Park, a public outdoor space, is part of a master plan created by Snøhetta, the renowned international architectural firm with offices in New York City and Oslo. Chris Johnson, Vesterheim’s president and CEO, welcomed this addition “to serve as a gathering space as well,” describing its design as “a Norwegian forest-and-glade concept.”
Vesterheim is much more than a museum. For one thing, the staff likes to ring in the seasons. For Christmas, there are concerts, craft classes, folk art demonstrations and holiday goodies. The annual Nordic Fest, a fun-filled family event with music and dancing, stalls with homemade foods, contests and games, takes place the last full weekend in July. Outdoor activities are free, open to the community and staffed by enthusiastic volunteers. At the finale, a colorful Nordic parade, with Norwegian and American flags waving proudly, proceeds along the main thoroughfare of downtown Decorah. During the day, there is a cornucopia of attractions from various exhibitions in the museum to demonstrations of Norwegian arts and crafts. Of course, the gift shop brims with enticing Norwegian-related merchandise.
A major focus of Vesterheim is the Folk Art School, annually offering a wide selection of classes since 1967—in fiber arts, woodworking, painting, cooking, jewelry, blacksmithing, knifemaking, and more, taught by instructors from North America and Scandinavia. Students participate in a community of learning and handicraft; they develop their skills, and many enter pieces in an annual judged competition. Winners donate colorful items for the annual benefit auction that financially supports the Folk Art School, protecting Norwegian traditional-art skills in America. To complement classes, Vesterheim’s annual tour program to Norway provides behind-the-scenes visits with artists and institutions. As Chief Curator Laurann Gilbertson writes, “Folk art offers connections and community for everyone at every age.”
And now Vesterheim Commons is open on Water Street in Decorah. With 7,600 square feet on three levels, this building physically links the past to the future.
Whether or not you have Norwegian heritage, there is plenty to enjoy and learn at Vesterheim: I can personally attest to that. I urge you to make the pilgrimage to Decorah to explore this unique and important cultural experience—it might just change your life.
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.