The Vesterheim Museum in Decorah has an extensive collection of artefacts
To see the largest collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world, you don’t need to look any further than Decorah, home to the Norwegian-American National Museum in Vesterheim and the School of Folk Art.
“What makes Vesterheim special is our long relationship with art and history in America,” said Paul Gilbert, Director of Marketing at Vesterheim.
Norwegian-Americans began collecting and preserving artefacts at Luther College, Decorah in 1877 to document their chapter in immigrant history, “making them pioneers in preserving cultural diversity in America,” he said. Gilbert said. From this collection was born the museum – now a nonprofit museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums that contains over 33,000 artifacts.
The museum consists of the main building, the heritage park (which houses 12 historic buildings from the Midwest and Norway), a library and an archive. The main building has four floors filled with artifacts that tell the story of immigrants who came from Norway to start a life in America.
“During your visit, spend time at the Selland House (second floor of the museum),” Gilbert said. “It’s a log cabin that was built in 1853 north of Decorah. It’s amazing how they lived over 160 years ago. He also suggested checking out the one-of-a-kind Hardanger violin on the third floor. You will even find a boat that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
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Gilbert’s favorite parts of the museum are the woodcarving and rosemary exhibits. “These areas are special to me for two reasons,” he said. “First of all, the artwork is fantastic. It’s amazing how artists turn ordinary objects into stunning works of art. They are also special to me for sentimental reasons. My ancestors were from Norway, so these areas always remind me of the objects I saw in my grandmother.
However, you don’t have to be Norwegian to enjoy the museum. “The beauty of the objects and the stories they tell appeal to everyone,” said Gilbert.
In addition to the permanent collection, the museum also organizes special exhibitions. Currently, “An Artist’s Journey: Carl Homstad, 50 Years” celebrates the paintings of the local artist and “New Nordic Cuisine” showcases the culinary traditions and innovations of the Nordic countries.
“On July 2, our ‘Socially Distanced Creatively Connected’ exhibit opens,” said Gilbert. “Over 70 pieces of Nordic-inspired contemporary folk art created during the pandemic and the stories behind their creation are presented.”
Vesterheim is a living museum, where everyone can take lessons and discover Norwegian traditions and in particular folk art, allowing these professions to live on. In 1967, Vesterheim started the Folk Art School with two classes: Hardanger Embroidery and Rosemary.
“The program now includes over 100 annual onsite and online courses on rosemary, painting, woodworking, fiber arts, metalworking, language and culture, culinary traditions, jewelry, music and more, ”said Gilbert. Offered only online during Covid, Vesterheim will reopen on-site classes on September 1, 2021. Learn more at vesterheim.org/folk-art-school.
Address: 520 W. Water Street, Decorah
Distance from downtown Des Moines: 203 miles
Hours: The main building and the museum shop are open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: $ 10 for adults; $ 8 for people 65 and over; $ 5 for 7-18 year olds
Insider tip: Heritage Park, the open-air part of the museum behind the main building, is finalizing a major renovation project and plans to reopen to the public on July 1, 2021.
Kids: Vesterheim is a family museum, but children can also discover Nordic-inspired arts and crafts online through the Familieklubb and Familietid programs: (folkartschool.vesterheim.org/classes/youth-and-family).
Fun fact: The Norwegian Royal Family and government officials have visited the museum on several occasions, and His Majesty King Harald V is the Honorary Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.
Museum shop: Don’t miss the Museum Shop, which is located a few buildings east of the main museum building. Gilbert suggests trying the chocolate. “It’s one of the best you’ll ever have.”
Future event: Nordic Fest is Decorah’s annual festival celebrating Scandinavian culture. This year, it will be held from July 22 to 24. Learn more at nordicfest.com.
While you are there: Gilbert calls Decorah “one of Iowa’s hidden gems”. While there, he suggests visiting the Decorah Fish Hatchery (decorahfishhatchery.org), Dunning Spring Park, and Ice Cave Hill (parks.decorahia.org/decorah-parks). He also recommends walking on Water Street. “There are so many amazing stores and places to eat.”
Where to eat: “If you really want a Decorah experience, you have to visit Whippy Dip (121 College Drive) and Mabe’s Pizza (110 E. Water St.),” Gilbert said.