Vesterheim Presents “Sacred Symbols, Ceremonial Cloth”

Detail of a bride’s belt cloth (belteklut), Telemark, Norway. Courtesy of Telemark Museum, Skien, Norway.

DECORAH, Iowa — Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum presents the exhibition “Sacred Symbols, Ceremonial Cloth,” curated by artist and respected art historian Mary Kelly of Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The exhibition will be on view in Vesterheim Main Building from September 18, 2009, through February 21, 2010. Everyone is invited to a sneak preview on September 17, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with free admission all day as part of “Free Thursdays,” sponsored by Decorah Bank & Trust Company.

The exhibition will highlight many symbols that have come down from ancient times and explore how they were used in family rituals in Norway through the nineteenth century. “The objects in the exhibition are primarily from Vesterheim’s collection and we are very excited to have eight textiles coming from Norway,” said Laurann Gilbertson, the museum’s Textile Curator.

“Telemark Museum in Skien, Norway, is graciously loaning five embroidered ceremonial cloths for the exhibition, and three more embroideries, careful copies of old textiles, are coming from members of a needlework guild in Sauherad, Telemark,” Gilbertson continued. Kari Bjercke, Collection Manager at Telemark Museum, is bringing the textiles and will be on hand at the sneak preview on September 17 to greet visitors and answer questions.

Four themes in the exhibition explain and demonstrate the functions of the symbols used on textiles and other objects: symbols of the sun that were thought to bring good luck, good harvests, and holiness; symbols that were part of traditional wedding celebrations and promoted fertility of the bride and groom; symbols that guarded houses and barns, as well as the humans and animals inside; and the symbols that linked the earth and sky and linked people to the spirit world, to its deities, and to the land beyond death.

Each theme will include a scene with furniture and enlarged historic photographs to demonstrate symbols and textiles in use at birth, marriage, and death.

Detail of a basket cloth (sendingsklede), Telemark, Norway, 1733.  Courtesy of Telemark Museum, Skien, Norway.

Detail of a basket cloth (sendingsklede), Telemark, Norway, 1733. Courtesy of Telemark Museum, Skien, Norway.

There are two lectures planned in connection with the exhibition. On November 15 at 2:00 p.m. in the Amdal-Odland Heritage Center, Pamela J. Davis will present “A Mystical Journey of Symbols and Fiber Art,” about the use of symbols in her own tapestry weaving.

Dr. Kathleen Stokker will present “The Fabric of Life: Textiles and the Rites of Passage” on December 23 at 2:00 p.m. also in the Amdal-Odland Heritage Center.

“Sacred Symbols, Ceremonial Cloth” is made possible by a grant from Humanities Iowa and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the following sponsors: The Royal Norwegian Embassy, Kate Nelson Ratenborg with matching funds from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, John and Veronna Capone, Paul and Carol Hasvold, T. Eileen Russell, Carol O. and Darold Johnson, and Jane Y. and John Connett.

The exhibition is presented in connection with the fourth Conference on Norwegian Woven Textiles, hosted by Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and Luther College September 25-27. The conference will include Norwegian and American speakers, special exhibitions, study group displays, pre- and post-conference classes, and more. The conference is sponsored by grants from the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Wigeland Fund and the Decorah Hotel/Motel Committee: B&B on Broadway, Bluffs Inn, Country Inn, Dee Dee’s Bed and Breakfast, The Depot Outlet, The Dug Road Inn, Hotel Winneshiek, Heartland Inn, Montgomery Mansion, and Super 8 Motel. Contact Vesterheim for information about conference registration.

Vesterheim uses the story of Norwegian Americans to explore aspects of identity and culture common to everyone. The museum cares for over 24,000 artifacts, among which are some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and folk art to be seen in this country. Founded in 1877, Vesterheim is the oldest and most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. This national treasure includes a main complex of 16 historic buildings in downtown Decorah, and an immigrant farmstead and prairie church just outside the city.

From May 1-Oct. 31, Vesterheim is open daily, 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., with hours extended until 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays.  From Nov. 1-April 30, Vesterheim is open Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m., with hours extended until 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays and is closed Monday. For more information on the museum’s exhibits, activities, and membership opportunities, consult Vesterheim’s website at, call (563) 382-9681, or write to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 523 W. Water St., P.O. Box 379, Decorah, IA, 52101-0379.

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