Photo by Laura K. Cooper 
Swedish pancakes cooked by Lizette Gradén and Tom O'Dell 

At Large In Ballard: Flipping the tables

By Peggy Sturdivant

It was no coincidence the museum interviewers from Sweden were in Ballard for Viking Days. The Nordic Heritage Museum’s former Chief Curator Lizette Gradén still knows the event drill intimately. It doesn’t get much more intimate than standing by a hot grill during a heat wave making hundreds of Swedish pancakes. Voluntarily!

Two years ago Gradén returned to Stockholm for a new position as Head of Collections for several of Stockholm’s National Museums. She is also an Affiliate Associate Professor of Scandinavian Studies at UW. She stays in close contact here, and where better than Ballard to conduct research on the role of rapidly expanding museums in urban areas? Gradén was in town last week with colleague Tom O’Dell, Professor of Ethnology at Lund University. His research focuses on the manner in which cultural and economic processes are entangled in one another.

As they arrived to interview staff, volunteers and community members about the new Nordic Heritage Museum scheduled to open in 2018 the Fenpro building on the future site had been reduced to rubble. Fundraising continues for the new museum, which makes their questions about economic viability for cultural museums very timely. Increasingly museums must generate revenue from sources other than just exhibit visitors, but how to do this and stay true to their cultural and historical mission?

Although they were in Seattle to conduct interviews I decided to turn the tables on them. At midweek their schedule was increasingly ambitious…meeting Nordic’s staff, Board, volunteers, visitors, and the architects for the new building. Although Gradén has lived and worked in the United States throughout her career the major difference between the Nordic Heritage Museum and Stockholm’s Royal Armory could be summed up in one word. Volunteers.

American museums rely on volunteers. Swedish museums are not allowed to use them due to the role of unions.

When you enter the Nordic Heritage Museum there’s a volunteer at the front desk, likewise in the gift shop. If there was any doubt about importance of volunteers the nametags at Viking Days would have told the story. Ditto for Mapping Historic Ballard, the Ballard Food Bank and just about every event, organization, school, and non-profit in the United States (not to mention our volunteers abroad).

Gradén never took the volunteers for granted while working at NHM but her appreciation continues for them continues to increase in Stockholm. “I’ve had to get much more creative,” she said, “I miss the whole community of volunteers. It keeps people engaged and active. It makes the museum more alive.”

As Gradén and O’Dell conducted interviews on the role of museums in the community they were noting over and over again the role of volunteers and how they benefit the museum and how volunteering benefits the volunteers.

Although national museums are free in Stockholm other museums must figure out to survive financially. So their research was looking at how museums can stay true to their cultural and historical mission while being viable. Will it be an on-site café, the gift shop, community events, exhibit tie-ins? What will make the locals become repeat visitors? How does a museum appeal to out-of-town visitors and local residents?

Gradén and O’Dell met with the project team at Mithun, the architectural firm working on the new museum. They learned the first space a visitor enters will be a public space, near a bus stop. No fee until you decide to advance to the exhibits. We discussed ways in which the museum could keep its connection to Ballard. “Halibut fleet tied up in back,” I suggested, or an exhibit that acknowledges the site on which it will stand, the legacy of the brothers who created Fenpro and Fentron, with the shipyard’s final days as a warren of industrial entrepreneurs and artists.

Gradén was surprised by how much Ballard had grown since she left almost exactly two years ago, noting it’s not just the museum that is rapidly expanding. She and O’Dell also assessed MOHAI’s new location and noted that the Burke Museum is also expanding. “How will the museums compete?” she wondered. “If we can learn how to help cultural museums, we hope it will be able to help Ballard’s Nordic Heritage Museum.”

By the end of the week there was no time for note taking. Along with another volunteer O’Dell and Gradén were working the hot grill just outside the museum’s kitchen, as though they had traveled here to just to fry pancakes. Inside other volunteers were mixing batter and serving up the breakfast. For three hours outside the cooks were pouring, flipping and then tucking hundreds of pancakes into their Swedish fold. “Tell people they can contact us,” O’Dell said. “Have them tell us what they want in a museum.”

Lizette and Tom welcome your contribution to their study. Your story, images or support matter. Please feel free to contact them via email. Email:  or Tom O’Dell

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