The windows were broken. It was dark and cold...and anything but inviting. But within the confines of the ugly-duckling abandoned building...

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The windows were broken. It was dark and cold — and anything but inviting. But within the confines of the ugly-duckling abandoned school building, Marianne Forssblad saw a museum.

Some 27 years later, the Nordic Heritage Museum that Forssblad started with simple exhibits has flourished into a cultural icon of the five countries it represents. Forssblad, whose life has been the museum, is now looking to the next phase of the museum’s development with pride even as she’s facing a new chapter of her own.

Forssblad is retiring today after 28 years with the museum, 27 of which she served as executive director. She will return to Sweden to live but says she plans to visit Seattle often to check up on her children — her two sons, a daughter and the museum.

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If an ambitious fundraising campaign goes as planned, within the next few years the museum will move into a new building between 28th and 26th avenues northwest on Ballard’s Northwest Market Street. It will be a step that supporters say will give the museum national prominence and make accreditation — and top exhibits — possible.

How to help

To contribute to the Nordic Heritage Museum’s capital campaign fund, make donations at or write 3014 N.W. 67th St., Seattle 98117.

But for those who know Forssblad, her departure from the museum seems inconceivable. Many recall museum lights burning late at night as Forssblad worked, or seeing her mop floors or climb tall ladders to hang exhibits.

After years as a single mother, Forssblad — in her late 60s — met a fellow Swede, Roland Wedenstrom, who lives in her hometown on Sweden’s west coast. She plans to move to Sweden to be with him.

“If it hadn’t been for the museum, I think my mother would have moved back to Sweden long ago,” said her son, Lars Guy.

Nordic Heritage Museum

Location: 3014 N.W. 67th St., Seattle 98117.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays. Information: 206-789-5707

Admission: Adults: $6; seniors and college students: $5; children over 5 years: $4; children under 5 and members of the Nordic Heritage Museum: free.

Events: In addition to permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum hosts numerous events throughout the year including concerts, a children’s program, Nordic Knitting Conference, films and crafts. For more information on these and other events, visit the museum’s Web site at

Terje Leiren, chairman of the University of Washington’s Scandinavian Languages Department, said Forssblad “leaves a remarkable legacy of service and rich contribution to the Nordic heritage in the Pacific Northwest.”

An interim director has been selected until the board can find a permanent replacement, board members say.

Creating a museum

In the late 1970s, Forssblad was teaching and working on her doctorate in Scandinavian studies at the UW and had worked for the Seattle Art Museum when Svein Gilje, a Norwegian-born leader in the Scandinavian community and a reporter for The Seattle Times, asked her to become involved in creating a museum.

The idea of collecting artifacts from Seattle’s many Scandinavian families had first surfaced in the 1930s, when Nordic community activist Arthur Eide suggested collecting items for a Norwegian museum.

The idea resurfaced again at the time of the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, when exhibiting artifacts became part of the new Nordic Festival at Shilshole Bay. Many of the founders of the festival joined the Pacific Nordic Council, the group formed to lay the groundwork for a museum.

In 1979, the council leased the empty Daniel Webster School from the Seattle School District for $10,000 a year, and the Nordic Heritage Museum was born, opening to the public the following year.

With 60 windows to repair, antiquated heating, little money and occasional vandalism, trying to run a museum and encourage visitors seemed impossible. But Forssblad kept it going, at times doing everything from janitorial to office work.

She continued teaching at the UW until the museum received a grant from the Washington Commission for the Humanities, which finally made it possible for her to be put on salary in the early 1980s.

Gradually, the number of exhibits increased with the donation of artifacts. Among the first donations were a pair of skis from the Holmenkollen Ski Museum in Norway, a part from an oil-rig drill used in the North Sea and a small vial of crude oil.

“An interesting but odd donation,” Forssblad wrote in a journal. “How wonderful if we also had received the oil well.”

The decision was made early on to have the museum feature all five Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark — believing that the combined five countries and their constituents were stronger together by forming a greater body of support. Today, it’s the only museum anywhere to combine all five countries.

The turning point for the museum came in 1985, when Forssblad went to Denmark and purchased “The Dream of America” exhibit, which depicts the journey Nordic immigrants took to reach the U.S. and how they lived once they arrived.

The exhibit — which has sound to help visitors imagine immigrants’ lives on prairies, villages and ships — not only gave the museum prominence and drew visitors but it brought to life the difficulty of leaving home and coming to a new land. It is still the main feature at the 40,000-square-foot museum.

Unique artifacts

Today, there are nine permanent galleries — among them rooms devoted to the immigrants of each Nordic country and its unique artifacts — and space for a variety of Nordic classes, but only three areas for temporary exhibits and poor climate control to preserve artifacts.

On April 22, Forssblad was honored at a gala by 459 guests — among them many of the 250 some museum volunteers. In typical Forssblad style, she deflected praise away from herself and applauded the volunteers and the staff of 12, rising to give them a standing ovation for their efforts.

Forssblad has been showered with accolades, including being named “Swedish Woman of the Year” by the Swedish Women’s Educational Association.

Forssblad was instrumental in getting donors to give $5.1 million for the purchase of the property for the new museum. Now an estimated $29 million must be raised to build the 60,000-square-foot facility.

Mayor Greg Nickels has pledged $1 million toward the project, which will have an auditorium, places for ongoing language and craft classes, a cafe, gift shop, room for an expanded The Dream of America exhibit and a large space for temporary exhibits. Also planned is a system for acclimatized storage and temperature and humidity control, a system required before the museum can be accredited with the American Association of Museums.

The improvements will make it possible for the museum to bring top exhibits from the royal houses of Nordic countries, said Gordon Strand, museum business manager. At present the museum has 40,000 objects now in off-site storage for lack of space.

“It’s your museum,” Forssblad told the April gathering. “We do this for the future.”

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

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