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'Wedged between history and hipster,' Ballard's new Nordic Museum is ready ... almost

When you see wood smoke and naked people in Ballard, you’ll know the new Nordic Museum is finally complete.

The museum's grand opening takes place this weekend, but there's one piece of history that's not quite ready for visitors yet: A century-old Finnish sauna, built by lumberjacks, which now sits on the museum's lawn.

“This is one of my favorite things,” museum CEO Eric Nelson said. “We’ve got a group of Finnish folks who helped us move it over here, and their dream is to get it operational again as a functional sauna. So we’ll see how that goes.”

Unless you're holding out for an old-fashioned steam, the Nordic Museum is ready. It took 20 years and $50 million dollars, but the museum now joins a city — and neighborhood — transformed from the heyday of Scandinavian immigration a century ago.

The museum aims to embrace both past and present — in fact, the museum’s very construction was yet another change in Ballard’s identity. The design aims to honor the immigrant journeys that were at the heart of the previous Nordic Heritage Museum.

Curator Nancy Engstrom Zinn showed us how the new building includes a physical bridge over the entryway below, connecting the exhibits on the Old World and North America.

“We’re about to step off — we’re about to cross this 34-foot tall Fjord Hall,” she said.

The sides of the bridge are transparent, making the drop feel even more dramatic.

“It’s meant to be a little bit thoughtful," she said. "It’s meant to make you stop and take a deep breath before you do it."

And the objects on display tell compelling stories, whether or not you grew up eating lutefisk at Christmas. They include authentic Viking swords and armbands worn by the Nazi resistance in Denmark.

“If we can tell the story of that object and make it a personal experience for somebody else, you can actually kind of project yourself into that experience,” Zinn said.

The old museum opened in 1980 in a former school building. It hosted cultural events and recreated turn-of-the-20th-century storefronts. The new Nordic Museum is custom-built to host exhibits about everything from contemporary Scandinavian art to Viking artifacts.

There’s also a space where visitors can bask in a recreated birch forest, looking at the Northern Lights and other scenery.

“The imagery and the sounds put you in touch with the natural environment in the region,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the planning process included focus groups that weighed in on which aspects of Scandinavian culture people find relevant today.

“There is a great deal of fascination in the ancient Norse mythology, Viking era, huge interest still in immigration and cultural identity, and then people were also fascinated by contemporary Nordic culture,” he said.

As part of the opening, the auditorium is already scheduled to host Nordic opera, films and performances by “post-punk” rock bands.

The Nordic Museum is located on Northwest Market Street, not far from the Ballard Locks. Nelson said it’s right where “old” and “new” Ballard collide. You can see tugboats on the waterfront from the back parking lot.

“We have the maritime industry, this kind of Nordic heritage to the south of us,” Nelson said. “And a very kind of hip, trendy thing going on to the north of us, so we’re kind of wedged between history and hipster. It’s a fantastic place to be.”

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