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Exploring Seattle’s new Nordic Museum and new-wave Spheres – East Bay Times

SEATTLE — The striking zinc-clad structure rises dramatically from the street, long, narrow and high, rather like a fjord. It’s a perfect setting for Seattle’s new National Nordic Museum, which opened in May. The 57,000-square-foot museum explores the culture and history of Nordic Americans and their homelands — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. And it’s drawing crowds of visitors, thanks to its striking exhibits, smorrebrod-centric Nordic cafe and a special events lineup that ranges from Sami film festivals and Finnish beer brewing — in a hollowed-out log, yet — to Moomin story time.

On this particular drizzly day, as we wait in line for museum tickets, we’re a bit dizzy at the prospect of exploring 12,000 years of Nordic civilization, Vikings and all. It’s not so much jet lag as cultural zigzag. The Pacific Northwest’s heady mix of culture, history, natural wonders and high-tech buzz will do that to you.

We’d spent the day before exploring Amazon’s futuristic new Spheres downtown, or at least the portion of it accessible without a work badge or month-in-advance tour reservations. Which is to say, first from a distance — all the better for gawking at the massive glass domes where workspace meets cloud forest. The biodomes include 40,000 plants from 30 different countries, as well as tech-savvy humans.

The Spheres add an otherworldly silhouette to the Seattle skyline.  (Jackie Burrell/Bay Area News Group) 

Then through The Understory, a dark museum-y space under the orbs, which offers interactive displays on the Spheres’ philosophy and architecture. And then from chef Renee Erickson’s new Wilmott’s Ghost eatery, which is inside the domes at street level. The restaurant is all rosy blush hues and marble lightness, with giant windows and a view of the Spheres structure that makes you feel like you’re on a space station — or a Mars habitat that serves wood-fired, Roman-style pizza, tiramisu and cocktails. (Hey, NASA, good idea!)

Renee Erickson’s new Wilmott’s Ghost restaurant is tucked inside Seattle’s The Spheres. (Jackie Burrell/Bay Area News Group) 

Willmott’s Ghost is named for a thistle that British botanist Ellen Willmott loved so much, she secretly planted seeds in friends’ gardens and public parks. Here, it’s a Victorian flower set amid a 22nd-century vision so futuristic, we kept looking for flying cars.

The next day found us back in the 21st century — or perhaps the 10th — channeling our inner Vikings at the new Nordic Museum. The striking structure is organized around what designers at the Mithun architecture and design firm describe as “a linear fjord,” a deep, narrow hallway with polished grey floors and faceted white walls that recall glaciers.

Glass birds seem to fly beneath the soaring ceilings. Historic boats are tucked along the walls, and sky bridges cross the fjord overhead to connect the second floor Nordic and Nordic-American galleries.

Sky bridges connect the galleries of Seattle’s new National Nordic Museum. Courtesy the Nordic Museum 

Upstairs, we grab a perch on an upholstered rock in the forested Sense of Place Gallery, and watch the cinematic Nordic landscapes — Iceland’s waterfalls, Greenland’s glaciers and Norway’s staggering fjords — unfold on a wall-sized screen tucked among birch trees.

The Nordic Journeys exhibit — the museum’s core exhibit is set, the museum organizers say, to run from 2019 to 2050 — offers five galleries that explore not just immigration but 12,000 years of Nordic life and culture, from ancient runes to Marimekko designs. The collection’s 77,000 objects include scores of items on loan from U.S. museums and the National Museums of all five Nordic countries, Viking rune stones and 4,000-year-old stone tools among them.

Seattle’s new National Nordic Museum opened in May, offering a glimpse back at 12,000 years of Nordic history. Courtesy the Nordic Museum 

We wander the galleries, cross the bridges, learn and absorb. Then we head back down to the first floor museum shop to browse Tove Jansson’s charming mid-century children’s books about Moomintroll. (What?? You don’t know about the hippo-like Swedish troll who lives in Moomin Valley with Moominmamma and Moominpapa — and who moons for Snorkmaiden? You can rectify that gap in your literary knowledge right here.)

And if you’re feeling peckish, the museum’s Nordic cafe, Freya, offers smorrebrod, salads and aquavit cocktails for modern Vikings — and those of us who wish we were.


Nordic Museum: This museum traces the history and culture of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as Sápmi, Greenland, Åland, and the Faroe Islands. Admission is $10-$15. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (and until 8 p.m. Thursdays) at 2655 NW Market St., Seattle;

The Spheres at Amazon Headquarters: Free weekend open houses are held at The Spheres (2117 Seventh Ave.) on two Saturdays each month — including Nov. 16 — with reservations available 30 days ahead at The Understory visitor center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 am. to 7 p.m. Sunday at 2101 Seventh Ave.

Willmott’s Ghost: This Italian-meets-Pacific Northwest restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. It’s located in The Spheres at 2100 Sixth Ave.;