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The brand-new Nordic Museum opens Saturday in Ballard

The Mithun-designed building is organized around a “fjord”

Courtesy of the Nordic Heritage Museum

After nearly 40 years in Seattle, the Nordic Museum—previously the Nordic Heritage Museum—is finally getting a home built especially for it.

The museum has stood in a schoolhouse in Ballard, a neighborhood built by immigrants from the region, since 1980. With its new 57,000-square-foot building, the museum is taking a giant step forward in not just capability, but design. Everything from the building’s shape to the guided visitor experience is bathed in the culture and landscape of the five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus their territories—and the people that came from them.

It starts with the physical presence of the building, designed by architecture firm Mithun. The structure is “organized around a linear ‘fjord,’” according to the firm. Walls inside are faceted and white as a nod to the glacial environment.

And within that fjord is a narrative, crafted along with exhibition designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), of movement in the Nordic-American experience: bridges connect Nordic and Nordic-American exhibits. At the center, the Fjord Hall connects all the museum’s exhibits and features like they’re tributaries, greeting visitors with a map display.

Branching out from the Fjord Hall are several exhibition areas: The Nordic Orientation Gallery explores what it means to be Nordic or Nordic-American. The Sense of Place gallery offers seating inspired by the Nordic landscape and a film presentation about the actual region’s environment. The Nordic Region gallery presents artifacts and key historic moments from all five Nordic countries. Then—connected by those bridges—the Nordic America gallery explores how immigrants built lives in America.

The last area—the Nordic Perspectives Forum gallery—examines contemporary live both in America and the Nordic region, and how they connect with each other and with the past. Stories in this exhibit, says RAA, illustrate “openness, innovation, social justice, and connection to nature.”

All together, the space makes room for about 18,730 square feet of permanent exhibitions and 3,715 square feet of temporary exhibitions, housing 580 total artifacts. A performance and gathering hall adds another 4,200 square feet and seating for 374.

Behind the scenes, the museum will have 2,500 square feet for collection storage—enough to store more than 65,000 items—plus climate control, something not available in the previous facility.

This link between both the Nordic region and the fluid experience of Nordic-Americans past and present, says RAA, is like the ancient Kalevala sagas, “allowing us to reach back into the distant past as a means of exploring more recent times.”

The landscaping around the museum, also designed by Mithun, is as much a part of the facility inside, containing not only some displays of its own, but a century-old Finnish sauna that the museum hopes will one day be functional. From the museum, visitors can see the Ballard shipyards that became vital to the culture and economy of the neighborhood.

The official opening kicks off Saturday, May 5 at noon with a ribbon cutting, followed by a Nordic culture festival with music and dance performances, food vendors, and other activities all weekend long.