Nordic Museum (Seattle): Its Opening

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 7/16/2018
  • Essay 20603

On May 5, 2018, the Nordic Museum opened its doors to the public in its new building on NW Market Street in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The event marked the culmination of a 15-year process to design, develop, finance, and construct a new museum facility in the historic district of downtown Ballard. The effort was a major transition for the Nordic Museum (which had been known as the Nordic Heritage Museum since its founding in 1979) as a cultural institution dedicated to preserving and sharing the identity of both Nordic and Nordic American peoples. This People's History was written by HistoryLink historian Fred Poyner IV, the museum's Collections Manager.

The First Location

Following its closure in 1979, the Webster School at 3014 NW 67th Street was vacated but still owned by Seattle Public Schools. The building was leased to the Pacific Nordic Council and became the site for the Nordic Heritage Museum when it first opened to the public in 1980. The facility served as a museum and community center, with an ongoing series of Scandinavian folk music, literary, and folk arts programs; annual events such as Viking Days (earlier called "Tivoli"); Yulefest and the Northern Lights Auktion fundraiser; educational resources; permanent exhibitions such as the "Dream of America" story of Nordic immigrants coming to the United States; and temporary exhibitions celebrating Nordic culture, arts, and history. The museum was recognized in 1993 as the only Nordic museum in North America. In 2001, it published the first edition of Voices of Ballard, a collection of oral histories archived by the Nordic American Voices oral history program.

While the brick-and-concrete former school building occupied 49,769 square feet on three floors, providing for an arrangement of artifact galleries, meeting spaces, and offices, it was a dated structure (originally built in 1908) as far as professional museum standards endorsed by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The lack of an HVAC system for climate control was a primary concern, along with the need for storage space for the continually growing permanent collection of more than 77,000 objects, photographs, archives, and the Gordon Ekvall Tracie Music Library. Requirements for an expanded space to host performing musicians, folk-dance groups, and large-scale exhibitions coming from the Nordic countries also underscored the case for a new museum facility.

A New Site in Ballard

Discussion among the museum's board members about where the new museum should go was a process of elimination, as some stakeholders in the community felt a better site could be found in the South Lake Union neighborhood or downtown Seattle. However, the history of Ballard as a city founded by Nordic immigrants from Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden (countries that all formed the core identity of the institution) won out in the deliberations. In 2003, under the leadership of the Nordic Heritage Museum's Board of Directors and then-Executive Director Marianne Forssblad (b. 1938), the museum began to raise funds to acquire parcels of property on Market Street in Ballard for the future construction of a new museum building. That same year, the museum completed the first phase of land acquisition by purchasing a 55,000-square-foot parcel of land on NW Market Street in downtown Ballard.

The site selected was the old Fenpro building, located at 2655 NW Market Street, which was originally a munitions factory during World War II. In the 1950s, the building served as a site for the manufacture of glass windows for skyscrapers, employing 120 people. After the late 1990s, Fenpro Properties had turned the property into a warehouse and leased space to more than two dozen artists, craftsmen, and machinists, and an inflatable boat company. Forssblad was instrumental to the choice of that property: a chance luncheon meeting with Ed Robinson, owner of Fenpro Properties, led to further discussions about the sale of the property and its use as a location for a new museum.

By the end of 2005, the museum was less than $500,000 away from raising the total $6 million needed to complete the rest of the Fenpro purchase. In February 2006, board president and longtime patron Allan Osberg (1924-2019) announced in the Nordic Heritage Museum's 2005 annual report that the board was continuing to raise funds to purchase parcel 2 (19,000 square feet in size) with $1.4 million placed into escrow that year to secure the acquisition of the remaining land. This brought the total size to some 75,000 square feet for a new construction site. In 2009 the museum purchased a third parcel for $1.5 million -- the "B-box" property adjoining the Fenpro site on the east, which would later serve as a combination rental and storage property for the new museum.

Leadership Transition

The launch of a capital campaign to raise the initial estimate of $44.6 million for the planning, design, and construction of the new Nordic Museum coincided with a transition in the museum's leadership. After running the museum for 27 years as the first paid staff member and Executive Director, Forssblad, originally from Sweden, helped the board initiate a search for a new director. On the museum's Board of Trustees, Irma Goertzen (b. 1933) was elected as the new board president in 2006.

In October 2007, The Seattle Times reported that Eric Nelson (b. 1958) would take over as the new Executive Director in early 2008, "overseeing what many hope will be the museum's rise to national prominence as it moves and expands" (Heffter).

Nelson's first year at the helm of the museum was a challenging one, as he coordinated the concept-design team in its process of shaping a vision for the new museum. This team involved a local architectural firm, Mithun, led by Mithun partner and lead architect Richard Franco; the exhibition-design firm of Ralph Appelbaum & Associates (RAA) from New York; a consulting architect from Finland, Juhani Pallasmaa (b. 1936); and many members of both the museum's board and Ballard's diverse Scandinavian and Nordic American community. On September 18, 2008, Mithun unveiled the first draft of the concept design for the new Nordic Museum. It shared a vision of a new museum as "a world class institution for preservation and storytelling, a more engaging outreach for a larger community, and ability to attract international exhibits" ("Nordic Heritage Museum Conceptual Design").

Vision for the New Museum

Several factors were viewed as critical to the success of an overall plan for the new museum. It would need to be a welcoming place for the community, incorporate elements of the existing museum's exhibitions and storytelling narrative, feature the history of Nordic American immigration along with origins of Nordic peoples and contemporary life in the Nordic countries and regions. As part of the public campaign to raise both funds and awareness of the new museum, members of the design team, board, and staff shared their vision of the future museum in a 2008 promotional video, The New Nordic Heritage Museum:

"It will so enhance the ability of the museum to present the 'Nordic Spirit' to the Northwest" (Gordon Strand, Business Manager).

"The goal is to create a museum that resonates with Scandinavian values, and to inform people how these values shaped American values. Seattle is really a perfect place to tell that story" (Ralph Appelbaum, President, Ralph Appelbaum Associates).

"I have strongly promoted the idea that there would be a connection with Nordic culture today. I would think that would turn the museum into a living, active cultural institution" (Juhani Pallasmaa, consulting architect).

"I think the new museum is interesting in that we'll be able to provide a venue to compare and contrast those two dreams: The Dream of America and The Dream of the Nordic countries" (Erik Pihl, board member; joined museum staff in 2016).

"We always come back to our roots. That's the way people are, and, we want to know what we are made from" (Margrét Sölvadóttir, language teacher).

Over the next decade, capital campaign efforts continued to raise funds for the new museum, with the effort coordinated by Nelson and Deputy Director of Development Jan Woldseth Colbrese (b. 1954), who joined the museum staff in May 2013. Financial contributions came from all corners, both public and private, from the Icelandic Club of Seattle, the Washington State Historical Society's Heritage Projects fund, 4Culture of King County, the City of Seattle, many private individuals and companies in the Pacific Northwest and across the country, both local and national organizations such as Sons of Norway, SWEA, the Suomi/Finn Committee, Skandia Folkdance Society, and more, as well as grants from foundations, companies, and individuals from the five Nordic countries, including the Maersk Corporation. By July 2017, just $6.8 million remained to be raised for construction of the new museum.

Developing the Plans

Concurrently, plans for a new core exhibition were developed by Ralph Appelbaum's team, in consultation with Nelson, Dr. Nancy Engstrom Zinn (b. 1958), Curator for Special Projects hired in 2014, and a Content Steering Committee of Nordic scholars and experts that included Dr. Terje Leiren (b. 1944), University of Washington (UW) professor emeritus and Director of the Scandinavian Studies Department; Dr. Christine Ingebritsen (b. 1962), professor and director of UW's Center for West European Studies; Dr. Ann-Charlotte (Lotta) Gavel Adams, UW professor emerita and Barbro Osher Endowed Chair of Swedish Studies; and others. Nelson described the importance of the core exhibition as central to the identity of the new museum:

"One of the key pieces of that is a new core exhibition, that looks at one question particularly: what is Nordic heritage? What does that really mean? We want to see this as an inspirational place, where people can leave and feel empowered to go out and make change in the world, but also go out and really explore their own personal heritage" (The New Nordic Heritage Museum).

On June 5, 2015, RAA completed the schematic design for the new Nordic Museum. It combined the vision for the new institution in terms of the core exhibition with the architectural plan of the new building designed by Mithun. Key among these was an elongated main hall that extended the length of the structure from east to west, based on the landscape of a Norwegian fjord; hence the name Fjord Hall. A series of wood bridges would span the hall at the second-floor level, connecting the Nordic Region, Sense of Place, and Nordic Perspectives galleries on the north side with the Nordic America gallery on the south side. These bridges not only served to direct visitor traffic from one side to the other, but also served as a visual metaphor for the voyages of immigrants between the Nordic countries and the United States, as well as the exchange of culture, ideas, and values between the old and new worlds that has continued to this day.

The main galleries were designed to have a specific focus on telling the narrative of Nordic experience. The Nordic Orientation gallery on the first floor combined museum artifacts, historical images, contemporary video, and new didactic panels to examine the five Nordic countries and the Sami, an indigenous people who have lived in Scandinavia for hundreds of years. This gallery drew its objects from many of the displays found in the five "country" rooms of the old Nordic Heritage Museum, supplemented with new acquisitions of objects reflecting contemporary Nordic design, art, history, and culture.

The second floor offered the Sense of Place gallery, an immersive visitor experience that combined birch trees with a wall video-screen display of imagery from landscapes across Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Åland Islands. The area was connected to the Nordic Region gallery, which presented a chronology of Nordic life from the prehistoric period before the Vikings through the formation of the Nordic countries to the present day. Visitors could continue on the north side of the building to explore the Nordic Perspectives gallery, a forum for visitor interaction involving social-justice issues embraced by the Nordic Council of Ministers, or cross over one of the four bridges to the Nordic America gallery and its telling of the immigrant history in America, from the East Coast to the Midwest and on to the Pacific Northwest.

In keeping with the desire to see the museum flourish as a cultural center and community meeting place, additional spaces in the museum took shape for a 4,000-square-foot temporary exhibitions gallery, classrooms, an exterior garden at the east end of the building, a Cultural Resource Center for the library and oral-history recording studio, a museum café, gift store, three rooms dedicated to storage of the permanent collection, and a 320-seat auditorium (named the Osberg Great Hall). The overall size of the new facility stood at 57,000 square feet on three floors, with a final project cost of $50 million.

Building the Museum

In 2016, the museum's board selected Kirtley-Cole Associates (KCA) of Everett as the general contractor to build the new museum. Sandra Nestorovic, Deputy Director of Operations for the museum, served as the project manager on the museum side, with John Nicol as supervisor and Ben Conner as project manager for the construction process for Kirtley-Cole. For Mithun, Dustann Jones served as the on-site project architect, a role he had held since 2012. A groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site was held on July 30, 2016. After the Fenpro building was demolished, foundation work for the new structure continued through 2016, with 350 concrete and steel pilings sunk into the ground, followed by the rapid rise of the steel framework in the first months of 2017.

By this time, Nelson, Zinn, and Collections Manager Fred Poyner IV (b. 1969) had identified and selected approximately 500 historical artifacts from the museum's permanent collection for the RAA team led by Brook Anderson to incorporate into the core exhibition plan (now named Nordic Journeys), along with another 100 objects requested for long-term loan from eight museums and cultural institutions in the Nordic countries. These loans took more than two years to secure in some cases, with final delivery and installation made in the spring of 2018 shortly before the grand opening of the new museum. Among the artifacts on display were two Viking swords of iron, a brass liturgical censer from the Middle Ages, a silver horde from a Viking gravesite, a spoon carved from reindeer horn dating to the nineteenth century, a flint dagger dating to the Stone Age period, and several brooches worn by both men and women dating to the Viking period (800-1050).

On Monday, March 20, 2017, museum staff and members of the public alike celebrated the day that the last steel beam was placed into position on the museum's framework structure by steelworkers from Kirtley-Cole. Two months later on May 15, the museum transported and installed the first artifact for display in the galleries -- a four-ton salmon-processing machine from a cannery. A total of 77,486 items from the permanent collection (including six boats, a Finnish sauna, and a runestone carved from granite) were moved to the new museum, with the final transport completed on February 22, 2018. Several artifacts also underwent conservation treatment, including a set of trawl doors from a fishing vessel that had the wood replaced by Pacific Fishermen Shipyard in Ballard.

Modern security systems, audio-visual and IT infrastructure, climate controls via an HVAC system customized for collection storage, and the temporary gallery were also installed by the contractor through the second half of 2017 and into early 2018. Douglas fir and hemlock wood were used predominantly throughout the museum as materials for the auditorium, bridges, ceilings, and floors. Pacific Studio, an exhibit-design firm located on Shilshole Avenue in Ballard a few blocks from the museum, began work in early 2017 on the exhibition fabrication for the Nordic Journeys plan, a process that continued leading up to the museum's opening date the next year.

Moving the Collection

By the time of its completion, the museum was a certified LEED-compliant facility, with "green" environmentally friendly materials and systems throughout. The museum was granted a temporary occupancy permit on February 1, 2018, to facilitate the relocation of the entire permanent collection to the new museum's storage areas. An occupancy permit for the entire museum was received on March 19, 2018, which allowed for the final transition of furniture and office equipment to the new building. Much of the planning for the move was accomplished by Adam Allan-Spencer, Operations Manager for the museum. For the inaugural exhibition in the first-floor temporary gallery, a collection of 36 contemporary artists' works was offered. The exhibition -- titled Northern Exposure: Contemporary Nordic Arts Revealed -- was co-curated by Dr. Klaus Ottmann (b. 1954), Deputy Director of curatorial and academic affairs for the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.; Jonathan Sajda (b. 1971), Program Manager for the Nordic Museum; and Robin Kaufman (b. 1977), Exhibitions Coordinator.

In the final weeks leading up to the grand opening in May, artist Tróndur Patursson (b. 1944) from the Faroe Islands, assisted by his son, Brandur, completed the installation of 24 large stained-glass bird sculptures suspended from the ceiling in Fjord Hall. The installation, titled Migration, became the latest fine-art acquisition in the museum's permanent collection. The Ny Carlsberg Fondet Foundation provided funding for this effort.

The success of the new Nordic Museum would not have been achieved without the dedication of staff, board members, volunteers, and community members. In the 2016 Annual Report for the Nordic Heritage Museum, board president Goertzen summarized this as an ongoing strength of the institution:

"The Nordic Heritage Museum is a critically important cultural organization in our local and global community. We look forward to continuing to provide an open and inclusive community gathering space that welcomes regular visitors and newcomers alike. Because of your support, the dream of a new museum has become a reality and we treasure your participation" (2016 Annual Report).

In the final three years leading up to the opening of the new Nordic Museum, the project was not without some challenges. By one count, as many as 18 staff members had come and gone between 2015 and 2018. During the final days of the Fenpro building's closure, some of its tenants publicly voiced their opposition to leaving, given the de facto nature of the new museum's construction. The office of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (b. 1955) called for installation of the missing segment of the Burke-Gilman Trail and bicycle corridor in front of the proposed museum, which required last-minute negotiations with the city's Department of Transportation on the design process and route impact on the north side of the construction site along NW Market Street. The excavation work begun in 2016 had yielded a deposit of objects dating back to Ballard's early pioneer days, in turn requiring timely archaeology studies that delayed the project's construction timetable and increased costs. Even the changing of the institution's name to "Nordic Museum," omitting the word "Heritage," was viewed by some as questionable. In the final analysis, the museum was able to address each of these concerns while remaining true to its constituency and mission as an institution to promote Nordic heritage, culture, and social-justice values.

Grand Opening

During the first week of May 2018, the new Nordic Museum hosted several public receptions, media events, and celebrations for visiting dignitaries leading up to the grand opening at noon on May 5, 2018. More than 300 guests including Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark (b. 1972); the President of Iceland, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson (b. 1968); and Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) attended a gala dinner event held the night of May 4 and spoke at the opening dedication ceremony the following day on a red carpet at the entrance to the museum. Jóhannesson praised the museum and those who had worked so diligently to make it happen, calling it "a testimony to Nordic culture and heritage as well as the strong ties between the Nordic countries and North America" ("New Nordic Museum Opens ..."). More than 4,000 assembled onlookers watched as CEO Eric Nelson and Board President Irma Goertzen stood alongside the ambassadors of Sweden, Finland, and Norway; the Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Dagfinn Høybråten (b. 1957); and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (b. 1958) as they collectively cut the ribbon symbolizing the opening of the Nordic Museum.

The grand opening was the start of a month-long series of events held at the museum and throughout the city under the collective moniker "Nordic Seattle." While the timing coincided with the annual Syttende Mai celebration of Norway's independence on May 17, other festivities included traditional Scandinavian folk dancing, cuisine, literature events, films, and musical performances hosted at the new Nordic Museum and other venues such as SIFF, the Seattle Public Library, and the Seattle Symphony. In its first month of operations, a total of 18,952 visitors came to see the new Nordic Museum.

On June 6, 2018, the office of Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) announced that a bill to designate the Nordic Museum as the official National Nordic Museum had passed the United States Senate, with House Resolution 855 calling for the same designation having been introduced earlier on April 27, 2018. On March 12, 2019, the legislation was signed into law by President Trump. The National Nordic Museum unveiled its new logo with the name on April 25, 2019, at a public ceremony attended by Cantwell and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (b. 1957), who co-sponsored the final legislation. 

In a testimony to the achievement that the opening of the new museum represented on a national scale, Nelson reflected on the museum being more than just a new structure: "In addition to history, our goal is to bring to life for all visitors the arts, culture, and social values that define the Nordic region today, such as openness, social justice, innovation and connection to nature which are universal and more important than ever" (Lloyd).


Emily Heffter, "Scandinavian Celebration: An Old Statue, a New Face," The Seattle Times, October 8, 2007, p. B-2; "Nordic Heritage Museum Conceptual Design" (Mithun, September 18, 2008), NHM No. 2016.148, Special Collections Archives, Nordic Museum, Seattle, Washington; The New Nordic Heritage Museum, DVD (White Noise Productions, 2008), NHM No. 2016.128.007, Special Collections Archives, Nordic Museum; 2016 Annual Report (Seattle: Nordic Museum, 2016); "New Nordic Museum Opens Its Doors," May 5, 2018, My Ballard website accessed July 2, 2018 (; Sarah Anne Lloyd, "The Seattle Nordic Museum Could Become the National Nordic Museum," May 17, 2018 (updated June 6), Curbed Seattle website accessed July 2, 2018 (; "Fenpro Building Coming Down to Make Way for New Museum," Ballard News Tribune, August 16, 2016, Westside Seattle website accessed July 2, 2018 (; Jonathan Sajda, "Northern Exposure -- Contemporary Nordic Arts Revealed," Nordic Kultur, 2018, p. 5. Note: This article was updated and revised on March 19, 2019, and April 28, 2019.

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