Isn’t it strange how we travel halfway around the globe to check out a hot new museum, while ignoring attractions in our own backyard?
I grew up in Delaware County, Ohio, a place with few claims to fame. One of them is the Olentangy Indian Caverns. Even though the caverns are lavishly advertised throughout Central Ohio; even though I passed by the entrance literally thousands of times growing up; even though I had friends who were tour guides at the caverns during summer break; and even though I went to a high school with the same name…I have never set foot inside.
As summer 2021 progresses, we’re in a strange limbo of waiting patiently for normalcy so we can head back to Europe. But in the meantime, now that things are opening up, it’s the perfect opportunity to “play tourist” closer to home — to finally visit some of those sights you always meant to see, but just haven’t gotten around to. Recently I toured an outstanding museum in my own neighborhood, and it felt very good to do a little sightseeing in my own hometown.
The National Nordic Museum opened in 2018 in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Old-timers fondly recall an earlier iteration, the Nordic Heritage Museum, which filled dusty display cases in an old brick elementary school with assorted Scandinavian bric-a-brac. It was endearingly humble and low-tech, as dry and crusty as decade-old stockfish.
The new version is still endearing, but in every other regard it’s a substantial upgrade. Visiting this collection’s bold, modern, purpose-built new home was a revelation. It’s my very favorite kind of museum: combining real artifacts with substantial information, and harnessing technology to set the mood and deepen your understanding of the topic, without being gimmicky. The National Nordic Museum made me nostalgic for some of the great museums I’ve enjoyed over the years in Europe, while at the same time, proud to have one just as impressive here at home.
After you watch a video briefly introducing the Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Icelanders, and Sámi, a long staircase leads up to the main exhibit. This comes in two parts. First, you learn the story of the Nordic peoples — their history, their land, their culture, and their values — culminating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions emigrated to North America. Having toured national history museums in each of the Nordic capitals, I was impressed by how thoughtfully this exhibit handled such a sprawling and complicated topic — distilling thousands of years of history into something concise and digestible, without oversimplifying.
Across a skyway that spans the sleek and modern atrium is the second part of the main exhibit. Here you learn the stories of what happened to those Nordic immigrants upon arriving in a new land. Many passed through Ellis Island before fanning out across the continent. These new arrivals settled in places like the Upper Midwest, Canadian Prairies, and Pacific Northwest, where they pursued many of the same vocations they’d brought along from their homelands: farming, forestry, mining, fishing, and so on. A beautifully produced video interviews Pacific Northwesterners with Nordic roots (and with names like “Nordstrom”), who explain how the values of their ancestors have shaped who they are and how they live in the present day.
And that’s the great success of the National Nordic Museum: It’s not just about dates, artifacts, and geographical factoids. Rather, it psychoanalyzes what it means to be Nordic, and how Nordic-ness has woven itself into the fabric of Ballard, of Seattle, of the Pacific Northwest, and of the United States. Perhaps I’m biased — both being part-Norwegian and living just up the street — but if I were writing up this museum for a Rick Steves guidebook, I’d award it our coveted “three pyramids” ranking.
This wasn’t my first visit to the museum. Just a few months before the pandemic, around Christmas 2019, I had toured the exhibit for the first time. I was so moved by the museum that I made a donation to install a plaque honoring my great-grandparents.
Andrew and Louise Monson left the fjordlands of western Norway and, after a brief stint in North Dakota, made their way to East Everett, Washington, where they built a farmhouse on a bluff with distant views of Puget Sound. Their family expanded and spread out, eventually putting down roots all over Washington, Oregon, and beyond.
On my recent visit, I brought my parents along — partly to enjoy the exhibit (which we did), but also to surprise them with that plaque. Out in the museum garden, tucked between a Finnish log-cabin sauna and a replica Viking longboat, we found the names of the ancestors who are the reason we’re here.
I grew up in Ohio, but my Dad always kept me in touch with my Pacific Northwest and Norwegian roots…which is probably, semi-subconsciously, part of the reason I moved to Seattle after college. Touring the National Nordic Museum reminded me, in a beautiful way, of the deep connections I enjoy with my great-grandparents and with the adopted community where we all ended up. And I’ll definitely be back.
What about you? Have you taken advantage of the Great Reopening to finally make time to see long-overlooked sights near you? Is there some attraction close to home that you’ve always been meaning to check out?