The first colonial-era emigrants from Sweden and Finland arrived in North America in 1638, just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed on the Mayflower. Swedes and Finns began arriving in greater numbers between 1820 and 1850, many settling in farming communities in the upper Midwest, especially in Minnesota.
One of them, an immigrant of humble origins named Swan J. Turnblad, made a fortune as the publisher of a leading Swedish-language newspaper as that population in America swelled from a few thousand to nearly a million in the second half of the 19th century. Like many self-made men at the turn of the century, he built an imposing residence. But the house known as the Turnblad Mansion was intended from the first to be a gathering place for the Swedish community. What is now the American Swedish Institute, or ASI, is a place to share and explore Swedish and Scandinavian traditions, the emigration experience, crafts, and the arts.
Described by the Wall Street Journal as “a model of how a small institution can draw visitors through exciting programming,” this vibrant arts and culture organization attracts more than 100,000 people each year to exhibits, tours of the Mansion, classes, workshops, films and lectures, and events. The ASI’s mission is to connect the community to contemporary Nordic culture and heritage. Among the more dazzling events are the Nordic Holidays festival each December, and Midsommar, a celebration of the summer solstice on the third Saturday in June.
As a center for Scandinavian culture, the Institute is the sheltering arm to nearly 30 organizations and performance groups, many of which meet and rehearse regularly on campus. It also mounts exhibitions related to the Swedish experience, often featuring items from its extensive collection of artifacts. ASI offers a wide range of classes and events related to Scandinavian heritage, as well as introductory and in-depth language courses. Adult Slöjd (Nordic craft) workshops are offered year-round. They typically include day-long workshops in crafts such as wool felting, glass art, jewelry making, ceramics, and hand carving, as well as folk music and film history events, plus classes in Swedish genealogy and history.
If you’ve ever visited Sweden—or even seen the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night”—you know that summer evenings there seem to last forever. Scandinavians delight in the summer solstice, or Midsommar, but the culture and the ASI also celebrate during the darkest time of year.
Located near downtown Minneapolis, the Turnblad Mansion was designed by architects Christopher A. Boehme and Victor Cordella. Built in the fashionable Chateauesque style between 1903 and 1910, the 33-room limestone house includes a two-storey grand entrance hall, carved stonework and woodwork, sculpted ceilings, and eleven floor-to-ceiling kakelugnar, Swedish porcelain-tile stoves. It has been the home of the American Swedish Institute since 1929.
The ASI opened the Nelson Cultural Center in 2012. Inspired by Swedish design, the space houses a studio and crafts classroom, flexible event spaces, collections storage, and a museum store and café. Environmental sustainability is a Swedish value dating to the 15th century, so it is also LEED Gold certified.
The ASI is an unusual organization, founded by a man who wanted Scandinavian–Americans to maintain their traditions and ties to the old country. “Many persons may have wondered what a small family like ours, which had not great social ambitions, wanted with so big a house,” Turnblad was quoted as saying. “Perhaps they can guess now.”
American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, Minn., (612) 871-4907.
Festivals & Celebrations at American Swedish Institute
Nordic Holidays: “Fest! Merry Mansion” is an immersive exploration of holiday traditions in five Nordic countries; it includes tours of Holiday Rooms at the Turnblad Mansion. See “Skål! Scandinavian Spirits,” a traveling exhibition from the Museum of Danish America; “The Spinning Bee,” an installation by the Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans. Free to members.
Julmarknad: This annual Christmas market features Nordic music and dance groups, shopping at the museum store, and the Julmarknad Handcraft Fair, with more than 30 artists. Families can make slöjd (handcraft) projects or share storytime with the Julmarknad Fairy while they wait for Tomte (of Swedish folklore) and Santa.
Lucia in the Mansion: The Swedish Festival of Light celebrates the coming of winter darkness with performances by the all-student Lucia Choir.
Winter Solstice: Enjoy a magical winter courtyard, tour the Mansion’s holiday exhibits, do family handcraft activities while imbibing glögg.
Midsommar: Gather outdoors to make flower head wreaths, dance around the pole, and sing Swedish songs. Performances, etc. Free to all.
Classes & Workshops at American Swedish Institue
The American Swedish Institute offers a wide range of classes and events related to Scandinavian heritage. For information or to register: (612) 871-4907.
Slöjd: Fused-glass Ornaments Use glass-art techniques to create two original fused-glass ornaments. Learn the basics of glass art; how to safely cut and work with glass. Projects will be fired in the ASI kiln for pickup two weeks after class.
Intro to Swedish Two-hour introductory workshop helps with grammar and pronunciation for basic conversation.
Winter Term Language Classes Learn to speak Swedish or Finnish in an adult language-learning community from fluent teachers. Beginner and advanced; 90-minute weekly sessions for nine weeks.
Slöjd: SAAMI-inspired Bracelets (beg.) Learn to braid traditional pewter-coiled thread and sew it to a strip of reindeer hide to make a double braid bracelet, following the oral traditions of the Saami, the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia.
Slöjd: SAAMI-inspired Bracelets (adv.) Create a double-braid bracelet with additional twists in traditional Saami style. Beginners in previous day’s workshop welcome.
Slöjd: Introduction to Saori Weaving Weave your own textile on a SAORI loom, using a method that originated in Japan. Beginners welcome.
Slöjd (or educational sloyd) is a system of handicraft-based education that began in Finland in 1865 and has been adopted worldwide.