“Discover a myriad of treasures brought from the old country to enrich life in a new land”, the museum map stated. I definitely had not expected to find a museum linked to Nordic Heritage in Seattle, but this probably just highlights my embarrassingly abysmal knowledge of American History.
The museum itself is house in an old school, which in the upstairs galleries makes for good classroom-sized rooms, but on the ground floor the spaces have been transformed dramatically. I loved ‘The Dream of America Gallery’ where you travel the journey from homeland to Seattle and not just with written text panels. The space incorporates props, buildings, boats, houses and shop fronts to represent different aspects of the journey. You can get lost engaging with this constructed world, peering through windows and picking up items from handling sections. At the same time there a clear, natural flow and direction through the space, following a weaving path through the set works. This makes for a really interesting journey.
Now I’m not a fan of plastic mannequins with detailed facial features. To me they have a tendency to just look too fake and plastic, or just plain creepy. There are a surprising number of people that actually have a phobia of realistic looking mannequins; maybe it’s due to that Doctor Who episode where they come to life, who knows. The first mannequins I came across I liked; they were fabric and human formed but with no features. This meant that the focus was on the clothes that they were wearing; which were subsequently presented as if they were on a person rather than folded flat, but without any distraction to a creepy, shiny plastic face. Sadly there were also examples of the creepy plastic kind, which of course still show off the clothes well, but almost look like they have walked out of a 1950’s shop window. I did however like the use of black and white original (but blown up) photos in the back of set works, visible through shop windows. There are also examples of what I call ghost mannequins (I’m sure this is not a technical name but it does describe what they are) where the clothes are stood as if they are floating, like the ghost army in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The variety was nice.
In the Dream of America Gallery larger panels tended to be written in a hierarchy style with important information in a brief larger top paragraph, and more detail in a separate paragraph below. This style would have worked well throughout the museum, but I did get the impression that it varied. The gallery on logging (which made me chuckle after my Chittenden Locks visit) had a movement activated voice over, which summed up the main points of interpretation within the room. This worked well because we were the only visitors in that room at that time, but it could possibly have been frustrating if you entered the room halfway through the audio information, but at least you could still find the information on the text panels.
The outstanding aspect of the entire museum is the amount of personal stories incorporated at each step. Black and white photos are labelled with people’s names, the stories of objects and the person who owned them are given. These examples are not just one offs, it was more unusual to see something with just a date and a description of what it was that of an interesting back story. Although the museum represents the stories of large Nordic groups, it also highlights the personal history of individuals.
The evidence of community engagement is also incredible. Each of the Nordic countries has been given a room on the third floor and each room has been co curated with members of the associated local community. This gives each room unique themes, layout and style. Although possibly a little dated (but I’m probably biased in this though due to my hatred of shop mannequins that just don’t look like they are from the 21st century), the original classrooms are broken up by built up walls and cases so they are no longer just square rooms but have a circular root full of things to look at that you can follow around the space.
The museum is currently planning a redevelopment, moving from the confines of the school to a specially built space. Fingers crossed they keep the community feel and the stories of individuals in this new space because for me that was what makes this museum fascinating.