New Nordic Museum on Market Street in Ballard. Credit: Nancy Chaney
Full disclosure: I live in Ballard, I'm of Norwegian descent, I lived in Sweden as a young child and my husband and I held our wedding reception at the old Nordic Heritage Museum. We are long-time museum members. In other words, I'm a super fan.
Needless to say, I've been excitedly awaiting the brand-new Nordic Museum's unveiling after the old building closed for good last fall. After many years (and dollars) of planning, the new museum is set to open this weekend; the official ribbon cutting is Saturday, May 5, at noon. With my favorite aspects of the cozy and quirky old museum in mind, I went for a sneak peek of the new facility to discover what features will most appeal to families, both those with a connection to Nordic countries and the greater community.
Bad news first: Two of the best aspects of the old museum (in my opinion) are gone. The immersive, walk-through exhibit Dream of America, which traced the immigrant experience from a Scandinavian country to Ballard around the turn of the last century, is no longer. Second, the new museum does not have an adjacent playground, as the old museum did. (Side note to museum designers everywhere: Want to entice families to your museums? Put in a playground.) Popular Webster Park, which got nifty new play equipment a couple of years ago, sits on the same site as the old museum.
Features for families at the new museum
But there are definitely family-friendly features to love at the striking new museum, which is modeled after a fjord. Here are my top five:
1. Video gallery with birch trees and "stones" to sit on
Kids will love pretending to frolic in a Nordic landscape among birch trees and stones to lounge on. The stones are actually heavy pillows covered in soft fleece. (I tried not to imagine my son picking them up and throwing them.) Sit on a stone and watch gorgeous footage of the remarkable landscapes of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
2. East garden
The museum layout includes outdoor space which always appeals to kids. The East Garden features two recognizable items from the old museum: the rustic Finnish sauna and the Viking-inspired wooden ship admired by lots of young visitors over the years. Word is the sauna may be repaired and opened; it's unclear if museum visitors would get to go in it. Once the brand-new landscaping has taken hold, museum executive director Eric Nelson said a labyrinth walk for kids is planned for the grassy area. The museum also has a courtyard space designed for outdoor performances and events.
3. Interactive elements
Throughout the museum's galleries, interactive video displays invite exploration and will attract screen-loving kids. In one video display, I learned about how Vikings navigated the seas a thousand years ago — hint, it wasn't with Google Maps — and in another, I learned about individual Scandinavian immigrants to Ballard, such as Norwegian Sivert Sagstad who founded Ballard Boat Works in 1905. There are also "activity drawers" sprinkled throughout the galleries that promise hands-on activities for kids. The one I peeked in was empty but the museum is on a mad dash to its grand opening. I imagine if activity drawers aren't loaded by the opening weekend, they will be soon.
4. Innovation and ideas from Nordic countries
Nelson pointed out that the museum's mission is not simply to connect families with Nordic heritage to their roots, the real mission is to showcase the best of Nordic culture to people of all ages and all backgrounds. One gallery highlights examples — and invites consideration — of four perspectives shared among Nordic countries. These are: social justice, openness, connection to nature and innovation. Adults might consider ideas such as single-payer healthcare, but Nordic ideas are right in front of today's kids, too. Think Lego, possibly the world's most popular toy — it's from Denmark; Minecraft, designed by Swedish company Mojang and Finnish cell phone pioneer Nokia, not to mention furniture everywhere from Swedish company Ikea.
5. Family programming
The museum plans to continue its family-oriented programming and perhaps with its expanded space, there will be more on the horizon. The stunning, wood-paneled great hall seems like the perfect place for kids to move and play.
- Popular Nordic Stories, the museum's free first Thursday story time for preschoolers will hold its inaugural session in the new building on Thursday, June 7.
- More upcoming family programs include Vikings in the Gallery (May 12) where kids can rub shoulders with Viking re-enactors and a Lego workshop (May 26) with local Lego guru Dan Parker. Preregister for this one soon while space remains.
Tips for families
- As in many museums, there are serious temptations for kids. The long fjord-like layout of the museum with its multiple bridges connecting two sides seems to me to invite running and exploring with perhaps more enthusiasm than is appropriate for a museum.
- Second, there are many items on display — without covers or cases — that kids will want to touch, from the fun red Jopo bike to a lovely wooden boat to a fluffy rainbow thing hanging from the ceiling that's part of a temporary modern art exhibit.
- The museum is probably best-suited to kids ages 5 and older who can exercise some self-control.
- A cafe featuring Nordic-inspired fare will open soon; note, it won't be open in time for the grand opening May 5.
- A nice gift shop is near the entrance to the museum (the old museum's gift shop was tiny and tucked away on an upper floor). Expect the best of Scandinavian design such as textiles from Finnish Marimekko but also lots of expensive and breakable items.
- Opening weekend will likely be very busy; this may not be the best time to tour the galleries with young kids, but come for the free ribbon cutting, modern and traditional music performances and festival atmosphere, plus to spy some Scandinavian dignitaries, including the president of Iceland and the Crown Princess of Denmark!
If you go...
When: The museum's grand opening festivities take place Saturday and Sunday, May 5–6. Outdoor activities such as the ribbon cutting at noon Saturday are free. To view the galleries on the opening weekend, you must buy a timed ticket. Note: Saturday's time slots are already full; try for Sunday if you want to be among the first visitors.
The museum's regular hours are Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., except Thursday when the museum stays open until 8 p.m.
Cost: $12–$15 for adults, $10 for youth and kids ages 4 and under are free.
Special events: Check the museum's Kids and Families page for upcoming programs, including activities related to Ballard's popular Syttende Mai (17th of May) festival and parade coming up Thursday, May 17.