By Meghan Hall
The Seattle Nordic Museum in Ballard reopened its doors in May 2018 after new facilities were built to house the 40-year-old museum and heritage center. The museum was built by Nordic immigrants who moved to the region, but in 1980 it initially opened its doors as a schoolhouse. The museum’s new 57,000 square foot facility is a far cry from its humble beginnings and seeks to continue capturing the essence of the Nordic-American experience and its culture with its visitors. To execute these goals through design, the museum worked extensively with Mithun Architecture, Ralph Appelbaum Associates and renowned Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa.
“It was a very exciting process,” said Eric Nelson, the chief executive officer for the Nordic Museum. “In January of 2008, the museum had acquired a couple pieces of property but didn’t have a clear vision for what they were going to build or how they were going to do it.”
According to Nelson and based on guidance from Pallasmaa, the design team sought to incorporate elements of Nordic design common to all five Scandinavian countries into the museum’s design.
“Juhani was in all honesty very clear about the fact that Danish architecture was different from Finnish architecture, which was different from Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic architecture,” explained Nelson. “The idea was to really find similarities and commonalities between all of these architectural styles to come up with designs that were universal.”
Several members of the design team even traveled to Scandinavia to get a better sense of the major themes that dominated the region’s design. Ultimately, the museums design and layout was centered around a linear “fjord,” which measures 400 feet in length down the center of the museum. On the second level, four bridges connect the two sides of the fjord, a layout meant to represent themes of immigration and migration.
“When you cross between the two, you experience in a more visceral way the transition from Nordic origins to the Nordic Americas,” explained Richard Franko, a design partner at Mithun and the lead designer for the Nordic Museum project.
“Having people experience this crossing is a marvelous feature of the building,” added Nelson about the bridge’s impact on visitor experience.
The atrium, where the fjord begins, is dominated by a white, glacial wall created from gypsum. According to Franko, both the color of the wall and the brightness of the space are important features in Scandinavian design. The importance of light and the building’s connection to its Pacific Northwest environment are further emphasized by large glass windows and skylights that can be found throughout the space. A vertically-striated zinc skin wraps around the museum’s exterior, while on the inside the main gathering hall in completely clad in hemlock, oak and fir woods. The beams and joists supporting the rough were left exposed as well.
“It’s just this beautiful wooden jewelry box,” said Nelson of the gathering space.
Currently, the hall hosts 150 different programs annually and is set up acoustically for concerts, film music and voice events. Several auditoriums, meeting spaces, a store and a “kaffe” that serves a fusion of Scandinavian and Pacific Northwest food are now also part of the guest experience at the museum. The museum sourced many of its products from Scandinavia as well, from its Finnish elevators to its Danish carpets.
“Museums have two missions: one is to serve as a community gathering space and the other is to share this Nordic story,” said Nelson. “We have used all sorts of Nordic products, and Mithun did a wonderful job researching what was appropriate.”
Part of the new facilities also include rigorous climate controls, which allow the museum to expand the types of exhibits it is able to house and curate. According to Nelson, the museum is the largest of its kind in the United States, and is the only one that focuses on all five Nordic countries. Ambassadors from all five nations attended the museum’s opening. With the new opening, the museum has increased its notoriety and impact; in June 2018, a bill submitted to designate the Nordic Museum as a National Museum passed the U.S. Senate.
“We really do see ourselves as a platform not only to share Nordic culture, but as a platform for public diplomacy, as well,” said Nelson. The museum generates programs every year in coordination with the five embassies to share the regions’ culture and heritage.
The bill has yet to be voted on in the House, but for the time being Nelson is excited about the new space and continuing the museum’s mission.
“We’re just worlds away from the old museum, and sometimes it takes me a minute or two for me to realize how dramatic the transformation of the museum has been from our old one to this state-of-the-art facility,” said Nelson. “It shows what a great job the entire team did to create a fantastic museum.”