On Aug. 20, Gov. Jay Inslee told museums in King County they could reopen if they followed certain guidelines: masks, sanitizer, restricting visitors to 25% of building capacity, etc.

Museum directors didn’t exactly run to their lobbies and throw the doors open: Seattle museums issued a trickle of reopening dates: Sept. 5 (Museum of Flight), Sept. 11 (Seattle Art Museum), Sept. 22 (Burke Museum), sometime in mid-October (Frye Art Museum).

But first among them was the National Nordic Museum, which opened to the general public at 10 a.m. on Friday.

By 11 a.m., the museum felt like a stark, formidable place — that’s partly on purpose. Seattle firm Mithun designed the building (which opened in 2018) in a fjord shape. The first floor is like walking on the water between two steep rock faces, with sky bridges above connecting galleries on one side of the “cliff” to galleries on the other.

But the fact that almost nobody was there added to the wilderness effect.

Even pre-pandemic, some of the exhibits felt ghostly — particularly cases of everyday objects from the old countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and the autonomous territories (Greenland, Åland and the Faroe Islands, to be exact), or those belonging to Nordic immigrants.


A wooden pitchfork from the 1930s, a rolling pin, a sickle, a hay-bale hook, an old Pippi Longstocking book in Swedish (“Pippi Långstrump”), silent instruments (a violin, a nyckelharpa, a piano fitted with candle sconces), a spinning wheel — the galleries filled with those objects are like a complicated attic from your dreams, if that attic had a timespan from pre-Christian Vikings to the 21st-century Hövding bicycle helmet (the word’s first airbag bike helmet, which inflates when it thinks you’re crashing).

But once in a while, another dreamer would appear. Rick Olson had biked to the museum with a friend — it was his first visit.

“I love it,” he said. “I remember the smaller one [the Nordic Heritage Museum, which had lived in a decommissioned public-school building in Ballard], but this is beautiful.”

Olson was also looking forward to revisiting the Seattle Art Museum, and said the health-conscious setup here felt satisfactory.

Olson’s biggest health hazard: His bicycling friend. “She keeps wanting to get within six feet of me.”

The only overt references to pandemics were a cloth mask somebody put on a cedar-log carving of Odin (with a large hound nuzzling into his beard) and a fact from one of the historical exhibitions: From 1349 to 1352, an estimated 40 to 60% of the Nordic population died of plague.


The museum covers some political history as well, including the 1397 Kalmar Union (uniting Denmark, Sweden and Norway under Queen Margaret I) and the 1936 bestseller “Sweden: The Middle Way” by journalist Marquis W. Childs, who studied Sweden’s effective, socialist alternative to U.S. capitalism and Soviet communism.

According to the wall text, Franklin Delano Roosevelt read the book in the middle of his New Deal reforms and was impressed.

Right now, the National Nordic Museum has two temporary exhibitions. The first is “Swedish Dads,” a photographic study by Johan Bävman of stay-at-home fathers. (In 1974, Sweden replaced maternity leave with the gender-neutral “parental leave.”)

The other temporary exhibition is devoted to Swedish fashion designer Gudrun Sjödén and her fashion label and retail chain. If the old artifacts felt like a dream attic, the Sjödén exhibition felt a little like walking through an immersive advertisement. Sjödén is interested in folk-art design from around the world — Guatemala, Estonia, China — and her clothes have a colorful but earthy chic, like something you’d see at a fashion show on Orcas Island

The National Nordic Museum had two members-only days on Sept. 2 and 3, but by the end of its first fully open day on Friday, it reported seeing around 100 visitors a day, well below its 25% capacity (340 per day).

Eric Nelson, the museum’s director and CEO, said that while cultural organizations around the state are feeling heavy COVID-19 economic losses, the Nordic National Museum is relatively stable — an emergency fundraising campaign in March met its goals by May.

But, he added, admission and other earned revenue (rentals, etc.) normally account for 65% of the museum’s income.

“We are now operating on a reduced budget,” he said, “and anticipate the need for additional fundraising to offset these losses.”