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Coast Chronicles: New Nordic Museum opens

By Cate Gable

Observer columnist

Published on May 15, 2018 4:43PM

Glass artist Trondur Patursson traveled from the Faroe Islands, off the coast of Norway, to install his enormous glass birds at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle.


Glass artist Trondur Patursson traveled from the Faroe Islands, off the coast of Norway, to install his enormous glass birds at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle.

Fjord Hall

From the sidewalk the new Nordic Museum looks almost boxy and industrial as it sits stolidly beside Ballard’s working waterfront, sheathed in a hue of a grey blue to match those Seattle skies. The moment you grab the evocative door handles — carved by Ballard resident Steven Jensen — and swing them wide, you know you’re going to be in for a majestic experience.

The doors open, and your head swivels upward to the soaring light grey ceilings of the museum’s main hall, punctuated by Trondur Patursson’s stunning wide-winged glass birds floating high overhead. (Trondur, a glass artist from Norway’s Faroe Islands, looks like he arrived from central casting. Wild-haired, in suspenders and corduroy work pants, he and son Brandur spent days in the air on a scissor lift perfecting the exact pitch and yaw of his birds.)

The walls slant, none are standardly perpendicular, and narrow from one end of the hall to the other so you have the feel of looking down an angled fjord. At the end of this aptly-named Fjord Hall is a windowed-doorway where, outside, a replica wooden Viking ship points its dragon-headed prow toward the western horizon as if it’s reluctant to be earthbound and is simply waiting for the Ballard Locks to fill before heading seaward. (I guess the crew is relaxing in the traditional wood sauna built in 1915 that was hauled from Finn Hill to the museum grounds.)

Statewide resource

The magnificent entry hall is only the beginning of the wonders inside the 57,000 square-foot museum, the largest in the United States to honor the legacy of immigrants from the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. As museum CEO Eric Nelson said when I spoke with him last weekend, “The museum is not just a community resource for Seattle, it’s something to be enjoyed statewide.”

He’s hoping many of us will visit. Nelson pointed out that according to the 2000 census, Pacific County has one of the largest numbers of Scandinavian residents, at 16.2 percent of our population. “It’s a significant figure. For a lot of Scandinavian immigrants, coming to the Pacific Northwest was a second stop for them after arriving in the Midwest. Their migration started around the 1870s because they discovered that there were industries here that they were familiar with — boat building, fishing, farming, lumber, even mining.” Of course these are all in our wheel-house.

“In 1910 over 35 percent of our immigrants coming into state were Scandinavian, and that’s really laid a strong foundation for Washington’s identity.” Nelson cites four basic values that are implicit in the Scandinavian culture: innovation and ingenuity; environmental stewardship; political openness; and social justice.

These values could well be the main descriptors of our North Coast culture, and they play out in a variety of ways: our desire for sustainability and a will to live in balance with nature; a raging boot-strap economy and DIY attitude; and a demand for transparency and fairness in governance. Even today it’s our independence of spirit and our sense of community that rises to the surface in any kind of emergency, like the Big Blow of ’07 when the Peninsula was cut off from the rest of the world for over a week.

“The Nordic community has played a key role in shaping the Pacific Northwest,” Nelson continues. “In the early 1900s, one out of every three people arriving in the Pacific Northwest was coming from the Nordic countries. Now 12 percent of our state’s residents — one out of every eight Washingtonians — has some Nordic ancestry, and there are more than 100 Nordic organizations in the Puget Sound region alone, providing invaluable cultural and community services. The museum is honored to be a hub or convener for the broader Nordic communities.”

After one stops marveling at the Fjord Hall, and before heading into the exhibits proper, there is perhaps time to sit down at the Freya, the museum café, for a rhubarb-cucumber salad, juniper-smoked king salmon with krukost (a Swedish potato casserole using “left-over” cheeses) and pickled vegetables; or just a strong cup of coffee and an oatmeal raisin crisp.

We also took a quick peek inside the Great Hall, an enormous acoustically-sensitive auditorium with walls of Hemlock panels and floors of end-cut Doug fir. It’s suitable for just about anything from a rock concert to a film debut; a costume ball to a lecture or play. In fact the hall can be rented by the public, and there are already several weddings on the books. Adjacent to the Great Hall is a outdoor south-facing patio — the Sun Terrace — which became the Beer Garden for the Grand Opening on May 5. Craft, workshop and meeting rooms and a museum store are also housed on the ground floor.

The Nordic Orientation Gallery gives an overview of all the Nordic cultures; and, across the way, the Visiting Exhibition Hall currently features “Northern Exposure,” a powerful example of contemporary Nordic art organized in cooperation with The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. (This will be followed by an exhibition of artifacts and displays featuring the Viking period.) The exhibits in this hall will change every three to six months.

Sense of place

One of the unusual aspects of the museum is that the architects collaborated with both Nordic experts as well as exhibition specialists. Often museums are built and then just turned over to curators who fit their artifacts and displays into the hard-scape as appropriate. In this case, the design of the museum is integral to the 11,000-year story of Nordic history that the museum is telling, starting, of course, with Fjord Hall. Another example: on the second story of the building visitors traverse from areas of country origin across walkways to a gallery that shows how the Scandinavian culture both transformed and was transformed by life in America. The width of the walkways mirrors the size of the various migrations.

Nelson notes “Many years ago, there was some talk about moving this museum downtown to make the location more central. But we said, ‘No! Ballard is our home.’ Our front door opens to the shops and restaurants of Market Street — our back door opens to the shipyards and fishing docks of the waterfront. This museum stands at the intersection of history and hipsters.”

The growth and evolution of the museum is a story of dedication and determination, from its humble beginnings — temporarily housed in the Webster Elementary School in Ballard — to the stunningly-crafted $45 million structure we see today.

“This new museum isn’t just a relocation,” says Nelson, “it’s a reinvention of who we are. It’s rooted in the shared values of the Pacific Northwest and Nordic regions. We built this museum to honor our parents and grandparents. And we built it to inspire future generations.” (Check out the hours and admission prices — ranging from $10-$15 — here: nordicmuseum.org. Membership for individuals is a very reasonable $55, for couples $75.)

Pacific County has one of the largest numbers of Scandinavian residents, at 16.2 percent of our population.


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