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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 Norwegian-American Museum.

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 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 or events.

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 River.

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 America.

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."

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 the future.

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.