To see the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world, you don’t have to travel farther than Decorah, home of the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School.
“What makes Vesterheim special is our long connection to art and history in America,” said Paul Gilbert, Marketing Director at Vesterheim.
Norwegian Americans began collecting and preserving objects at Luther College in Decorah in 1877 to document their chapter of the immigrant story, “making them pioneers in the preservation of cultural diversity in America,” said Gilbert. From that collection, the museum was born — now a not-for-profit museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums that contains more than 33,000 artifacts.
The museum includes the Main Building, Heritage Park (which houses 12 historic buildings that came from across the Midwest and Norway), a library and archives. The Main Building features four floors filled with artifacts that tell the story of the immigrants who came from Norway to start a life in America.
“When you visit, spend some time in the Selland Home (second floor of the museum),” Gilbert said. “It’s a log cabin that was built in 1853 north of Decorah. It’s amazing to see how they lived over 160 years ago.” He also suggested checking out the one-of-a-kind Hardanger fiddle on the third floor. You’ll even find a boat that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
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Gilbert’s favorite parts of the museum are the woodcarving and rosemaling exhibits. “These areas are special to me for two reasons,” he said. “ First, the artwork is fantastic. It’s amazing to see how artists transform ordinary items into stunning works of art. They are also special to me for sentimental reasons. My ancestors came from Norway, so these areas always remind me of the items I would see at my grandmother’s house.”
You don’t have to be Norwegian, however, to appreciate the museum. “The beauty of the items and the stories they tell appeal to everyone,” said Gilbert.
Along with the permanent collection, the museum also rotates special exhibits. Currently, “An Artist’s Journey: Carl Homstad, 50 Years” celebrates the local artist’s paintings and “New Nordic Cuisine” showcases the culinary traditions and innovations of the Nordic.
“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 being featured.”
Vesterheim is a living museum, where anyone can actually take classes and learn about Norwegian traditions and specifically folk art, allowing these crafts to live on. In 1967, Vesterheim started the Folk Art School with two classes — Hardanger embroidery and rosemaling.
“The program now includes over 100 annual classes, both onsite and online, in rosemaling, painting, woodworking, fiber arts, metalworking, language and culture, food traditions, jewelry, music and more,” said Gilbert. Only offered online during Covid, Vesterheim will reopen classes onsite on Sept. 1, 2021. Learn more at vesterheim.org/folk-art-school.
Address: 520 W. Water St., Decorah
Distance from Downtown Des Moines: 203 miles
Hours: The Main Building and Museum Store are open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.
Admission: $10 for adults; $8 for ages 65+; $5 for ages 7-18
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-friendly museum, but kids can also experience Nordic-inspired arts and crafts online through the Familieklubb and Familietid programs: (folkartschool.vesterheim.org/classes/youth-and-family).
Fun Fact: Norway’s Royal Family and government officials have visited the museum many times, and His Majesty King Harald V is the museum’s Honorary Board Chair.
Museum Store: Don’t miss the Museum Store, which is a couple buildings east of the Main Building of the museum. Gilbert suggests trying the chocolate. “It’s some of the best you’ll ever have.”
Upcoming Event: Nordic Fest is Decorah’s annual festival celebrating Scandinavian culture. This year, it will be held July 22-24. Learn more at nordicfest.com.
While You’re 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 Water Street. “There are so many amazing shops and places to eat.”
Where to Eat: “If you want a truly Decorah experience, you have to check out the Whippy Dip (121 College Drive) and Mabe’s Pizza (110 E. Water St.),” said Gilbert.