The Ballard museum opens May 5 with a grand ambition: telling the tales of 12,000 years of Nordic and Nordic-American life. Those stories are relevant to everyone in Seattle, the museum’s chief says.

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After 20 years of dreaming and planning, around $52 million of fundraising and a 21-month construction project, Ballard’s new Nordic Museum — an ambitious art, heritage and cultural center with old Viking swords and a fresh-smelling spruce- and fir-lined events hall — is ready to open its doors to the public.


“We’re still working on finishing touches,” said Eric Nelson, the museum’s chief executive. “Lots of people running around, getting things done.”

Nordic Museum

Grand-opening weekend events:

• Saturday, May 5: Ribbon cutting at noon; community festival 1-5:30 p.m. with storytellers, choirs and folk performers; opening concert (sold out) at 7 p.m.

• Sunday, May 6: Community festival 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

• Note: Ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday and community festival on Saturday and Sunday are free. Tickets are required to view the galleries inside the museum. Saturday tickets are sold out. Sunday tickets, free-$15, are available through

Location: 2655 N.W. Market St., Seattle

More information: 206-789-5707,

Source: Nordic Museum

For almost 40 years, the old version of the museum sat in a nearby brick schoolhouse. The new museum, designed by Mithun, is a blocky, starkly modernist, 57,000-square-foot building wrapped in zinc on Northwest Market Street. It will open with great fanfare — foreign dignitaries, traditional dance, a rock concert co-produced with KEXP — on Saturday, May 5.

The Nordic Museum, Nelson said, is in the middle of “an exciting, mad dash to the finish.”

One sunny afternoon earlier this month, Jose Tirado and his landscaping crew were out in the parking lot, following a small John Deere tractor around the building’s perimeter, muscling linden trees in and out of the tractor bucket for planting. Little black plastic pots of other

Nordic plants (yarrow, elderberries, etc.) stood in formation nearby, waiting their turn.

Tirado said they were on a tight schedule before the grand opening, which will kick off several days of events, including visits from ambassadors of the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden), as well as the president of Iceland and the Crown Princess of Denmark — plus the KEXP concert with Nordic and Nordic-American musicians (doom-metal/folk singer Chelsea Wolfe and post-punk band Mammút, among others).

Inside the museum, installers bustled around wooden crates or stood on ladders, checking hung artifacts with levels. In one corner, someone with a circular saw was trimming a thin, broad piece of wood.

Upstairs, on a third-floor deck of the museum, members of Ballard’s maritime industry sat, gossiping about their peers, drinking Carlsberg beer and affectionately insulting each other while waiting for their “sneak peek” tour.

“This will be huge for Ballard,” said Bill Forslund, a former fish-industry worker who now manages advertising sales for Fishermen’s News. The maritime types concurred that 20th-century Seattle was built on the Nordic-heavy timber and fishing industries, and that Ballard was the unofficial Nordic capital of the United States. But they seemed equally (if not more) interested in swapping old sea stories.

The Nordic Museum’s front faces the “new Ballard,” which is busy sprouting bars, boutiques and condos. But its back deck, where the maritime gang was sitting, has a view of the old working waterfront.

“I’d cut off fish heads for 16 hours a day,” Forslund said, glancing over his shoulder at the docks crowded with fishing boats. “Then I went to sleep and dreamed about cutting off fish heads, then I’d wake up and do it all over again!” The others smiled knowingly.

“Fishing is what this town is known for,” said Greg Sangster, the general manager of MER Equipment which, among other things, works with John Deere — one of whose tractors was rumbling down below — to customize their agricultural equipment for seafaring use. “It doesn’t matter who’s opened here: Microsoft, Starbucks. We’re known for fishing. It’s family!”

Sheila Stickel, who is doing communications work for the museum, walked outside and announced that the tour was about to begin.

“But you have to leave your drinks up here,” she said with an apologetic smile. The maritime crowd looked at their bottles and groaned.

Grand ambitions

The Nordic Museum has grand historical and architectural ambitions. Its exhibits span 12,000 years of Nordic (and Nordic-American) life. Architectural Digest named the building one of “the 15 most noteworthy museums opening this year.”

The spacious interior is cleft down the middle by two towering white walls — an abstracted fjord — with high-up bridges that cross between them. One half of the “fjord” is dedicated to the far side of the Atlantic: what Nordic climate and topography looked like centuries ago; Sami reindeer-milking bowls (the Sami are the Nordic region’s indigenous people); Viking grave artifacts; copies of Swedish thriller novels like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”; an ABBA CD; sleek Nordic furniture; a new Swedish bike helmet with an air bag that inflates during a crash, before its unfortunate wearer hits the ground.

“Ikea?” one visitor yelled impishly as she walked through the contemporary-Nordic section. “Where’s Ikea?” Another visitor asked in a more pointed tone: “Whaling? There’s still cultural whaling. But maybe that’s something the museum didn’t want to deal with.”

The tour guide nodded and smiled politely, but his expression seemed to radiate: Look, people, there’s only so much we can do with a reinvented museum covering 120 centuries in five countries, plus the massive North American migration. Can you cut us some slack here?

The tour moved on without further incident.

The other side of the fjord attends to Nordic emigration around 1900, when roughly one-third of the population fled from famine and political instability and many landed in the Northwest: a 1914 timberwork jacket made by the company that eventually became Filson; framed pages from socialist labor newspapers; a mammoth hunk of 100-year-old fish-processing equipment (which is so big and heavy, it had to be craned into place during the building’s construction — it wouldn’t have fit up the stairs).

New mission

For around 37 years, the museum — then known as the Nordic Heritage Museumsat in an old Ballard schoolhouse. That iteration, Nelson said, was mostly dedicated to the North American migration.

But as time passed, he said, its focus began to feel a little stale: the traditional clothes on mannequins, the small wooden trunks that immigrants brought, some of which could only fit boots, a coat and a Bible.

Those objects were prized family heirlooms, a snapshot from one important slice of time. “But they don’t tell the whole Nordic story,” Nelson explained. “There might have been a perception that the museum only served a small community of Nordic-heritage folks. But we see Nordic culture as one tile in a mosaic that makes up the culture of the Northwest, and we wanted to share that with others.”

The museum had also spent millions of dollars on upkeep and repairs — fixing hundreds of broken windows, remediating damage from a fire — on a schoolhouse it didn’t even own.

It was time for a change.

That change has been protracted and, at times, daunting — new name, new mission, trying to keep old constituents happy while attracting new ones. The $52 million fundraising effort started around 1998, but officially launched as a capital campaign in 2008 — just in time for the financial crash. “A lot of cultural organizations were struggling,” Nelson said, but the museum grew its budget each year, going from $850,000 in 2008 to $3 million today.

In the end, he said, the museum is a migration story writ large: Settlers moving to “the rooftop of Europe” when polar ice caps receded centuries ago; migration to the U.S. in the 20th century; the recent, global export of Nordic technology and aesthetics; Nordic countries learning to adjust to waves of new refugees from Syria and beyond. “We’re dealing not only with the past,” Nelson said, “but with the effect of the Trump administration and what’s happening across the Atlantic.”

The Nordic story, he concluded, is relevant to everyone in Seattle, and across the U.S.: “We are, after all, a nation of immigrants — a nation of many people who’ve gone through similar experiences. Certainly when Nordic people came to the Northwest, they were working in forests, mills, fishing — certainly not the most glamorous elements.”

When the first tour finished, a bottle of caraway-smelling aquavit in the reception hall was almost drained. A few of the maritime folks — descendants of one generation of migrants — filed out of the museum and into the parking lot, passing a new generation.

Like Nelson, Tirado and his crew were still planting, working on finishing touches. One of the landscapers spotted them, smiled, lifted a shovel in salutation and sang out: “Adios, señores!”