Vesterheim Is 125 Years Old and Never Been Better!
DECORAH, Iowa: This year Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
celebrates the 125th anniversary of its founding with a special
exhibition, an anniversary party, a tour to Norway, and maybe
a big surprise or two throughout the year.
In 1877, the Civil War had been over for twelve years, Rutherford
B. Hayes was President of the United States, and Luther College
was sixteen years old. In 1877, over 200,000 Norwegians had
immigrated to America, but over 600,000 would still arrive
in the following decades. In 1877, the Arlington House hotel--now
the museum's main building--opened in downtown Decorah, a
town that had attracted Norwegian settlers since the 1850s.
And in 1877, Luther College accepted the first known donations
to its museum, the museum that would evolve into Vesterheim
This year marks 125 years since those first donations. As
Vesterheim celebrates its 125th anniversary, a special exhibit,
"Building a Western Home: 125 Years of VesterheimNorwegian-American
Museum," looks back over the wide range of collections and
exhibits, the dedicated supporters, volunteers, and staff,
and the evolving sense of mission that has shaped Vesterheim
into what it is today.
The exhibit, which opens March 22, uses artifacts, photographs,
and archival materials to explore Vesterheim's history and
the personalities who shaped it. The exhibit will run through
January 19, 2003 in the Anna Hong Fine Arts Gallery on the
third floor of the museum's main building.
On Thursday, April 18, Vesterheim will throw its own anniversary
bash. From 4-7 p.m. the museum's main building and the Hauge
Gallery of the Westby-Torgerson Education Center will be open
to the public free of charge. Come see the new exhibit. There
will be activities for the kids and refreshments will be served.
THE EGG CAME FIRST
The first known donation to the museum was actually a group
of bird eggs. The president of Luther College, Laur. Larsen,
acknowledged the gift in 1877, thus beginning a small collection
for the benefit of Luther College students. In its early days
the collection included anything that might be of interest:
stuffed birds; stamps and coins from foreign countries; plaster
casts of classical sculpture; and relics of historical people
By 1895, Luther alumni recommended the museum concentrate
its collecting on Norwegian immigrant materials--which proved
to be a truly visionary decision because, in making it, Norwegians
became one of the first immigrant ethnic groups to see the
need to preserve cultural heritage, and the museum became
a pioneer in the promotion of America's diversity. The decision
is all the more remarkable because Norwegian mass immigration
had begun only thirty years earlier.
When Haldor Hanson became the museum's first official curator
in 1895, he was very aware that newer technologies were replacing
many older tools, buildings, and methods of manufacturing.
He began to seek out objects for the museum collection that
showed the lifestyles of early Norwegian immigrants, such
as hand-made household items, objects brought to America from
Norway, and a "kubberulle" (log-wheeled wagon) from the 1840s.
By 1900, Hanson reported, "The Museum has made a special
effort to gather a collection of Norwegian materials, older
and newer, examples of Norwegian fine and domestic arts. Much
of this was brought to America by immigrants, and it is important
to rescue as much of this as possible before it is too late."
At the end of the nineteenth century, that idea was very new.
Only a few individuals in America and Scandinavia recognized
the importance of saving objects that were "old-fashioned"
and would otherwise be thrown away. Vesterheim was one of
the first museums in the United States to intentionally collect
artifacts from ordinary people.
The museum's collecting efforts could not have succeeded
without the grassroots support of Norwegian-American communities.
Hanson traveled throughout the upper Midwest to collect donations
of artifacts, and even asked Luther College students to acquire
objects for the museum while they were at their homes for
the Christmas holiday.
The early enthusiasm for the collection is evident in a
letter Hanson received from the governor of Minnesota, Knute
Nelson, in 1896: "I should like to have this old deed preserved
as long as possible, and I can think of no better place than
Luther College," Nelson wrote, "for I apprehend it will be
one of the most lasting centers of Norwegian literature and
Norwegian education in America.
When Hanson stepped down in 1902, a number of professors
took charge of the museum in turn, until C.K. Preus, then
president of Luther College, served as curator during the
final ten years of his life. He oversaw the first stages of
the Open Air Division when he moved the Egge-Koren Log House
to the college campus in 1913. The house was preserved because
it was the first Lutheran parsonage west of the Mississippi
After Preus's death, the college appointed Knut Gjerset to
the post of curator. Gjerset had already published histories
of Scandinavian peoples and he was interested in pursuing
the path that Haldor Hanson had started. Whereas Hanson sought
out Norwegian objects that immigrants had brought to America,
Gjerset was equally interested in objects that Norwegian Americans
had made or used after arriving in the United States. Gjerset
wanted to build a "Norwegian-American historical museum .
. . which would help one to visualize the living condition
and activities of the Norwegians who have come to dwell in
In addition to steadily adding new acquisitions, Gjerset
organized the collections by installing them in the current
main museum building in 1933 and by setting gallery displays
of pioneer artifacts apart from the other exhibits of ethnographic
and natural history materials.
One of the highlights of Knut Gjerset's time at the museum
was the large gift sent from Norwegian museums in honor of
the 1925 centennial of Norwegian immigration. Anders Sandvig,
the collector of Maihaugen Museum in Lillehamer, organized
the project. Sandvig felt that Norwegian institutions should
each contribute artifacts of Norwegian culture in appreciation
of the Norwegians in America.
In a letter accompanying the gift Sandvig wrote, "May these
objects work so that the Norwegian-ness in you will not die
too soon, and the connection with the homeland will be tighter.
Receive this gift as proof that we follow you all in our hearts,
even though the big Atlantic Ocean parts us." A second large
gift from Norwegian museums accompanied Crown Prince Olav
on his visit to Decorah in 1939.
During the second World War the museum suffered the neglect
of understaffing and its use for storing government surplus
supplies for the Barracks. Inga Bredeson Norstag became curator
in 1947 and began the process of cleaning up what she described
as "an appalling accumulation of dust, grime and cobwebs all
around. . . . All in all it was a sight that would have been
most discouraging, if it had not been so challenging. "She
not only cleaned and re-opened the museum for the public,
but she also actively promoted the museum nation wide as a
tourist destination. She brought the museum to a national
audience through features in the "New York Times," the "Chicago
Sunday Tribune," and illustrated magazines like "Life," "Antiques,"
and "Woman's Day."
AN INDEPENDENT MUSEUM
In 1964 the Norwegian-American Museum Corporation was founded
to be independent from Luther College. The new Board appointed
Marion J. Nelson as director, an art history professor from
the University of Minnesota who had begun cataloging the collection
the previous summer. His expertise in the folk, decorative,
and fine arts of Scandinavian Americans highlighted the museum
collections with new scholarship. Under his leadership, the
museum achieved professional standards of collection care
and reached out to new audiences through programs, tours,
and folk art classes.
The 1960s ushered in a new interest in cultural diversity
and ethnic heritage. As second- and third-generation Norwegian
Americans began to revive traditional crafts, many looked
to Vesterheim's collections for examples of the folk arts
they wanted to create. Vesterheim became a leader in the folk-art
revival by organizing classes in specific techniques. This
American revival in turn sparked a new interest among Norwegians
in their own folk arts and was instrumental in the resurgence
of folk art in that country. When the Decorah Jaycees organized
the first Nordic Fest in 1967, the museum offered the first
National Rosemaling Exhibition. From 1967 to today, instructors
from Norway and the United States have offered classes in
rosemaling, woodcarving, weaving, knife and jewelry making,
embroidery, and other crafts.
Through the 1970s, the museum's collections and activities
became increasingly focused on Norwegian-American culture.
In 1972 Vesterheim returned Luther College's biological, geological,
and ethnographic collections to the various departments on
campus. The Vesterheim Genealogical Center was founded in
1974 in Madison, Wisconsin, thanks to the pioneering vision
of its founder, Gerhard Naeseth. The mid-1970s saw a complete
renovation of the main museum building and the historic buildings
moved from Luther to the downtown site.
The past twenty years have brought greater visibility for
Vesterheim as it participates in exhibits and events in Norway
and throughout the United States, increased opportunities
to learn Norwegian traditions, and a growing complex of office,
classroom, and storage spaces to support the core museum.
Staff and supporters remain as committed to Vesterheim as
they have at any point in the past 125 years. The institutional
mission is once again clarified for a new generation: "Vesterheim
embodies the living heritage of Norwegian immigrants to America.
Sharing this cultural legacy can inspire people of all backgrounds
to celebrate tradition." We invite you to join us throughout
the year as we both celebrate our history and look towards
With a main complex of 16 historic buildings in downtown
Decorah, Ia., a farmstead and country church about seven miles
outside the city, and the Vesterheim Genealogical Center and
Naeseth Library in Madison, Wis., Vesterheim is the largest,
most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to
a single immigrant group. The museum is open every day of
the year, except major holidays. For more information on Vesterheim's
125th anniversary events, or on any other aspect of the museum,
call (563) 382-9681, or write to Vesterheim Norwegian-American
Museum, 523 W. Water St., P.O.Box 379, Decorah, IA, 52101.