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50 States of Preservation: Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, WA

June 29, 2017 | By Ralph Canevali

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum (NHM) maintains a collection of some 77,000 works of art and historical objects related to the history of Scandinavia and its peoples.  One of the museum’s most popular destinations is the Folk Art Gallery, which has featured selections from 3,000 pieces of clothing from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as costumes representing different Nordic immigrant communities in North America and the Sami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. The NHM’s textile collection dates from 1820 to the present. One notable example is an 1890 Skautbúningur costume used as bridal dress by five generations of an Icelandic-American family; the unique designs on the costume’s stitching and the belt are based on medieval patterns and motifs, some of which date back to the Viking era.

Both scholarly researchers and the general public have benefited from museum’s textile collection, which has been featured in exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad.  Of course, the NHM also serves as an important cultural resource in the region, with close ties to Nordic heritage groups in Washington and the Pacific Northwest, such as the Sons of Norway Lodge, Leif Erikson no. 2-001, and the Swedish-American Club of Seattle.

The museum has long been committed to the care of its collections.  In 2010, an NEH grant supported the purchase of environmental monitoring equipment and preservation supplies to rehouse a portion of its clothing and other textiles. The NHM is currently preparing to relocate to a brand new facility; the move will help ensure the long-term survival of its collection of national heritage folk costumes from the Nordic countries and the Sami people. 

Through a second Preservation Assistance Grant in 2017, the NHM secured the services of textile and metal conservators Jane Hutchins and Dorothy Cheng, who assessed the current conditions of the costumes and their future potential for display.  The grant also allowed for the purchase of storage boxes, garment bags, and other preservation supplies.  Over a six-day period, the 17 folk costumes (82 total items) were photographed, removed from public display, inspected and treated for condition, and made ready for storage in their new climate-controlled facility.   

The NHM used this unique opportunity to educate the public about the importance of conserving fragile cultural heritage materials.  A special viewport was set up in the folk art gallery through which visitors could observe the project in action.  They watched museum staff remove the costumes from their forms and place them on tables, where they were examined by the two conservators.  Finally, they were able to watch the careful packing of the items in preparation for their eventual move.  Special signage placed outside the gallery summarized the intent behind the NEH project and explained to visitors what they could expect to see.  As it turned out, public interest in the conservation work was lively, and museum attendance during that six-day period more than doubled from the year before.

According to NHM’s Collections Manager Fred Poyner IV, the NEH project “has provided vital support of the museum’s efforts to preserve these folk costumes, which help to define both Scandinavian culture and Nordic-American identity for visitors today. We look forward to including new selections of these National heritage folk costumes among the approximately 450 items presented in the new Nordic Museum opening in 2018.”

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 1, 2018.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570. 

The Nordic Heritage Museum received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-51083-10 and PG-252825-17.