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RETHINKING SCANDINAVIA — CSS Publications Web Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 1 — "Looking In, Watching Out"
Published in July 2018

The Challenges of Re-Packaging a Heritage

Re-imagining Nordic culture in North America

Lizette Gradén & Tom O’Dell, Lund University

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The research results presented in this paperwhich were originally presented at the CSS conference in Lund in June 2017 were made possible by support from Erik Philip-Sörensens stiftelse and Birgit & Gad Rausings stiftelse för humanistisk forskning. It relates to the ongoing project Understanding the Conditions Facing Heritage in a Hybrid Market, supported by the Swedish Heritage Board. We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who has participated in interviews, informal discussions and shared their perspectives. Varmt tack to everyone who has propelled our fieldwork in Seattle by inviting us to events, homes, tours and who have supported us in various ways.

In the last decade, many museums that were established in the 20th century by immigrants from the Nordic countries have become increasingly concerned with broadening their audiences and more actively engaging their visitors. Efforts to do this have varied from offering cocktail hours, culinary conferences, and sauna sessions, to striving to appeal to people who may not identify as Nordic or do not think of museums as places they would normally visit. In part, these efforts stem from the growing expectations museums face of demonstrating the manner in which they serve a public benefit and support social values at play in society at large, but they also stem from the demands museums face of providing measurable results of annual growth to their financial stakeholders. But how does, and can, this work when it is a very particular heritage (Nordic heritage) that is under a museum’s auspices?

Illustration. Mithun Architects, Seattle. Illustration. Mithun Architects, Seattle.

Photo: Tom O’Dell. Photo: Tom O’Dell.

This paper investigates the layers of significance attached to the word “heritage” as it is framed by staff and leadership at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, in the wake of the museum’s efforts to leave their 1907 school house and move into a new purpose built facility in 2018 and expand its constituency. What role is attributed to the word heritage when the museum aims to engage new cosmopolitan communities in a global economy? How do notions of contemporary Nordic culture that are at play in the global ecumene challenge and create new interpretations of Nordic Heritage?  

Re-conceptualizing Heritage

The manner in which the past is legitimized and reframed in the present has been discussed both within the museum sector and the academy for decades.

Cultural heritage has often been used to legitimate and support different forms of collective identity and allegiances linked to nations, places, sites, artifacts, rituals and traditions from the past. In the early 20th century the focus was mainly on material culture and “tangible heritage”. As the International Charter of Venice emphasized, heritage was essentially constituted by material objects that were “Imbued with a message from the past. Indeed, it was not until 1972 that Unesco expanded the concept of heritage to include natural heritage, and 1994 that it included”intangible heritage“, such as oral tradition, festive events, performances, skills to produce traditional crafts, to mention a few. 1 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Destination culture: tourism, museums, and heritage. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998. In recent years, aspirations to become part of the Unesco”heritage lists" of tangible, natural, and intangible heritage has become a field of competition for many nation states, the Nordic included, striving to make themselves visible globally.  

Among critics of Unesco’s creation of separate lists for tangible, natural, and intangible heritage are scholars trained in ethnology and folklore, who tend to see these three aspects as intimately interconnected. Folklorist and museum scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, for example, has argued that heritage “is made, not found”.2 Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, “Theorizing Heritage”, Ethnomusicology, 39.3, 1995, pp. 367-380; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, “Intangible Heritage as Metacultural Production”, Museum International, 56.1, 2004, pp. 52-65. Heritage making is an ongoing process. When accepting that the past is continually re-created in the present, focus shifts to heritage as “metacultural production”3 Lowenthal, David. The past is a foreign country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Lowenthal, David. Possessed by the past: the heritage crusade and the spoils of history. New York: Free Press, 1996., the authority involved in the inclusion and exclusion processes that follow such selections.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues, in essence, that Unesco’s manner of defining heritage takes on a cookbook mentality, which lists ingredients that are deemed necessary to the making of heritage - a recipe based on Western hegemonic notions, needs, and bureaucratic principles. When selecting the ingredients from past in the present, this process calls for research into the role of the chefs. Who participates in the cooking and to whom is the meal supposed to be served?

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s definition of heritage as something created in the present builds on such ideas as Eric Hobsbawm’s on the  “invention of tradition” as well as those found in David Lowenthal’s Possessed by the Past.4 Anttonen, Pertti J, Siikala, Anna-Leena & Klein, Barbro (red.). Folklore, heritage politics and ethnic diversity: a festschrift for Barbro Klein. Botkyrka: Multicultural Centre (Mångkulturellt centrum), 2000. Appadurai, Arjun and Carol Breckenridge. Museums are good to think. Heritage on View in India. In. Museums and Communities. The Politics of Public Culture. Ed. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1992. Pp. 34-35. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Destination Culture, 1998, p. 7. Lowenthal argues:

History explores and explains pasts grown more opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes. Critics who confuse the two enterprises condemn heritage as a worthless sham… But heritage, no less than history, is essential to knowing and acting. Its many faults are inseparable for heritage’s essential role in husbanding community, identity, continuity, indeed history itself" (1996:xi).

Heritage is in short, not only linked to selected events, traditions, and materialities of the past, but it has, as Lowenthal argues, always been an important vehicle through which the past has been mobilized in the present in the name of specific cultural identities and communities. In the process, heritage becomes charged with symbolic value and meaning for collectives and specific groups.5 Interviews August 2016. Recordings and transcripts in the possession of the authors. This is at least how heritage has been seen in the past. But what happens when “specific groups” are not enough to afford a cultural institution’s economic sustainability in the finicky and shifting market of the cultural economy?  

Nordic Heritage

The Nordic Heritage Museum, with its current lease expiring in December 2017, faces such challenges as it is in the process of moving to a purpose designed facility. At present, the Nordic Heritage Museum is located in a 1907 schoolhouse in Ballard, a sleepy residential neighborhood in Seattle. The museum was founded in 1980 by Nordic immigrants who sought a platform to share among themselves and with others their cultural heritage and emigrant experience. Over the years the museum has grown from being volunteer operated to becoming increasingly professionalized.

Local supporters, museum founders, volunteers, and contributors from outside the Pacific Northwest have donated the artifacts accessioned into the collection and exhibited in the museum. The first floor of the three story museum holds a core exhibition (the Dream of America) featuring many of the possessions the immigrants brought with them to the United States. The core exhibition continues on the second floor, featuring the fishing and logging industry, which the immigrants became part of in the Pacific Northwest and an extensive folk art gallery. This floor also hosts three galleries for temporary exhibitions. The entire third floor has been made available to émigrés of the five Nordic countries to organize and present their perspective of cultural heritage, in consultation and collaboration with the museum’s curatorial department. The content, origins, and compositions of the Nordic’s exhibitions have traditionally worked to interweave aspects of Nordic identity and history, with perceptions of local identity, and community spirit.

While many of the temporary exhibitions have had a contemporary focus, with a connection to a Nordic past, the bulk of the museum space that was devoted to permanent or core exhibitions, was squarely focused on the past. In short, Nordic Heritage in this museum was consistently constructed in ways that Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Hobsbawm, and Lowenthal would readily recognize.

Reshaping Nordic Heritage in the Pacific Northwest

But things are changing. Seattle is currently the fastest growing city in the United States attracting a large pool of young international professionals – many of whom are working in the IT industry. However, Seattle continues to be home to a large Nordic community (it has remained at 12,5% in WA state in census after census, all the way to the most recent numbers from 2014). Boeing, SAS, and Microsoft are examples of companies that have been attractive to professionals from the Nordic countries. At present, the city is attracting a young highly educated Nordic population to to such companies as Microsoft and Amazon. In the midst of all of this, the Nordic Heritage Museum is trying to adapt to new times, shifting demographics and a new cultural and economic context.

In August of 2016 the Nordic Heritage Museum completed demolition of the Fenpro building, hosting an artist collective, and celebrated the groundbreaking for a new museum facility. In April 2017 the museum held a tree-topping ceremony to mark the raising of the girder framework. On the fence separating the general public from the constructions teams at both occasions, hung large posters promoting the coming of “The New Nordic Museum”. Conspicuously missing was the word “heritage” which had since the museum’s founding in 1980 been an integrated aspect of its name and identity.