Museums have helped support cultural diversity in the US by collecting and preserving artifacts and documents from immigrants around the world. During the annual meeting June 7-10, we will visit the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, which houses a collection of fine arts and folks arts made by Norwegian immigrants and their descendants.
The museum collection started in 1877 to assist Luther College students in their studies. Within a few years the faculty and alums of the college decided the focus of the collection would be the material culture of Norwegian immigrants. In 1964 the museum became an independent institution, The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. History comes alive when you enter the main building and see an immigrant log house from 1853, fabulous woven tapestries and a 25-foot wooden sailboat.
Norwegian immigrants used the word “vesterheim” to refer to their western home in America when writing to those still living in Norway. Imagine how different their new life was in a little corner of Iowa. The museum has emphasized the diverse backgrounds and experiences of Norwegian emigrants, using the material culture from the old country and the new to tell a story of identity, faith and beauty. The objects, such as costumes, paintings, silver wedding crowns and carved butter molds, speak the colorful stories of the ancestors and those who journeyed into a new world.
Norwegian museums gifted important textile collections to the Vesterheim in 1925. The textile collection now numbers 5,500 and includes clothing, household textiles and decorative items. They came from rural and city areas and the collections reflect these differences. Examples include embroidered samplers made by young women attending needlework schools in cities, as well as bedding, weaving and spinning tools…and those wonderful mittens!!
Other collections and experiences at the Vesterheim Museum
In addition to textiles, one can view a diverse collection of decorative woodcarving, fine arts, Norwegian metalworking, rosemaling and decorative paintings. Many of these objects can be viewed online in the museum’s virtual galleries. Books, photos and archives relating to the art and artifacts round out the collection. The museum offers more than exhibitions of objects. Visitors can take fiber arts classes, attend textile symposia and even textile study tours to Norway.
What does it mean to celebrate culture in Iowa?
I am an Iowa native and museum anthropologist, but no road has yet taken me to the Vesterheim Museum. Sometimes the best things are right in our own backyard and we miss them for all of the tall corn in the way! I left my Iowa farmstead years ago for the rolling hills of Eastern Washington. I have lived in five different states, Colorado twice. And yet, returning to the land where I grew up offers another new perspective on creating a connected textile community. We will learn about sustaining our environment, our multifaceted culture in the US and each other. Let’s get this show on the road! The Tradewind awaits our arrival…