For the past several years, all the adults on my husband’s side of our family have opted to follow a name exchange program to facilitate Christmas gift-giving. For 2012 my husband’s younger brother drew my name, and consulted my husband for gift ideas. Between the two of them, my brother-in-law (BIL) arranged the perfect combination of presents for me: 1) a donation to the Humane Society, and 2) a promise to complete Item #38 on my 101 list with me.
You may remember from past posts that when it comes to gift-giving, I prefer people make donations to charity in lieu of giving me material possessions – so I love that my BIL gave the gift of shelter to an animal in need. Yet some people are uncomfortable giving only a donation as a gift (which I understand), so I also appreciate that instead of ‘supplementing’ my holiday present with a book or CD, my BIL decided to give me an experience. I will always choose forming a memory over receiving a bauble, and I can think of few better people to explore the American Swedish Institute with than my husband’s brother. (My in-law family come from a long line of Norwegian ancestry.) My BIL and I get along well (he even lived in our house for a summer many years ago), but now that he has children I don’t get to see him too often – so I thought it would be fun to explore a place that was new to both of us, and to spend a few hours with him free from any significant responsibilities or distractions. (Kids are fun, but they do demand quite a lot of care and attention.)
A few days before we were scheduled to meet up at the Institute, I emailed my BIL to confirm that our plans were still in place. He replied back to my note, “Of course we are still on! The museum opens at 10:00 am — would you want to meet in the parking lot right at 10, have lunch when we feel like it, and see more of the museum after lunch? Whatever you want to do is fine with me; I basically have the whole day blocked off for you. :-)” In reading his reply, I was genuinely touched. It’s not often that another person sets aside an entire day specifically dedicated to me; knowing that someone had arranged their busy life to make me the focus of one of their days made me feel honored. Sincerely. In that moment, I experienced exactly how powerful the gift of attention really is; how being present for someone truly is a present. It’s so simple, yet so wonderful. Wow.
So when I pulled into the Institute’s parking lot at 10 am on Saturday, I felt happy. I hadn’t yet experienced anything, but I was already having a wonderful time. 🙂
The morning was gray, drizzly, and cold – perfect weather for exploring a museum. When I stepped into the space, the first things I encountered were a cafe (which was quite active with patrons/diners), a gift shop (which was closed), and an open atrium that connected the two. All three spaces had a very clean, minimalist feel to them – very Design Within Reach. I began to understand why my husband was drawn to a very specific interior design aesthetic – apparently it is encoded into his genetics. Kind of wild, but honestly, pretty true.
My BIL and I met inside, and were given a quick briefing of the space by the volunteer at the admission desk. The American Swedish Institute was actually comprised of a few key spaces: a small art gallery, the café, a cultural center (with classrooms), and a mansion. Since the art gallery was immediately in front of us (just off to the top right corner of the above picture, my BIL and I decided to start our adventure there.
On display was a series of lithographs by a local artist who creates works largely influenced by Sami culture (more to come on this in a bit). When I walked into the studio, I didn’t know what a lithograph was; happily for me, in the center of the gallery were a few panels that explained the lithograph creation process:
As I examined the various prints, I appreciated the detail and beauty within each one. I could feel the artist’s heart in the works on the walls; truly incredible.
The pictures I took of a few of the lithographs simply don’t do justice to the art; if you’d like to see more examples of the various pieces, please visit the artist’s website.
After touring the gallery, my BIL and I walked past the café and down the main hallway of the cultural center to approach the mansion. This is where our fun experience with contrasts began.
The way the total ASI space is structured, the cultural center adjoins the back of the mansion; so unbeknownst to us, my BIL entered the massive home through the back door (literally). After a few confusing moments, we started walking to our right side, and eventually found our way to the main entrance:
As we stood in the main foyer of the space, I was immediately taken by how truly gorgeous it was. Solid dark wood adorned every vertical surface, and plush carpet squished under my feet (even after all these years). Intricate carvings and adornments were found at every turn:
As my BIL and I moved from room to room, about 10 minutes into our exploration he paused. He looked at something along one of the floors, squinting. In an tone that suggested he wasn’t exactly sure about something, he asked me, “Um, hey – is that an Easter egg?”, and pointed to an object tucked into the banister of a set of stairs.
Indeed, it was an Easter egg! (Three, in fact.) What the heck… As my BIL and I continued our self-directed tour, we saw more and more of these eggs crop up everywhere! They were next to furniture:
Eggs were on the mantles of multiple fireboxes (previously discussed), and tucked into the dirt of potted plants, and hidden among bookshelves. Little plastic eggs were even hid among pieces within the Sami exhibit:
Um, okay, this is strange. What are these plastic eggs doing all over the house? My BIL and I reasoned that clearly some sort of holiday egg hunt would be occurring at some point in the future; but why would a museum put eggs into places that they clearly didn’t want people (especially small children) touching? I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “Oh well; hopefully the organizers have a plan for this,” then continued walking.
Little did I know that I was about to experience some searching madness first-hand.
My BIL and I were in the basement of the mansion, where we had stumbled on the archives section of the institute. We looked over a few books that were lying out on tables, when I saw two things that caught my eye:
At this point in the museum experience I started chuckling to myself about all of the contrasts I was living through at this exact moment in this very building. A bit lost in my own thoughts and amusements, I exited the small museum library and re-entered the basement area of the mansion – and came to face-to-face with a small army of children, ages 18 months to four years. Each child was holding a sheet of paper in one hand, and a small square of egg-shaped stickers in the other. Suddenly one observant boy yelled, “I see one!”, and scrambled to put one of the egg stickers on a specific line of his sheet of paper.
Apparently the Easter egg hunt had begun.
While excited, all of the children were actually quite quiet (considering they were on an Easter egg hunt!) and very well-behaved. As they moved quickly from room to room, spying the colored eggs my BIL had brought to my attention earlier, he and I turned our attention to the Sami exhibit that was set-up in various rooms within the mansion.
In talking with my BIL and reading the various posters in each gallery space, I learned that the Sami people were (are) an indigenous population of northern Europe (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). Similar to the US Native Americans, the Sami lived a nomadic lifestyle, had great respect for nature, and sought to live in harmony with all beings. Because of their trusting and peaceful nature, they were easy to dominate and take advantage of – and just like the US Native Americans, had the few things they truly value (i.e., land and peace) pretty much stolen from them. Also similar to US Native Americans, the current Sami are asserting themselves to reclaim their rights (to property, their livelihoods, etc.), and are struggling with reconciling their historical way of life with the realities of the current day. I found the Sami exhibit simultaneously sad yet inspiring, upsetting yet also uplifting. Here is just one snippet from the dozens of scenes in the museum that captured some of the contrast:
As my BIL and I continued walking through the mansion, I felt the space shift slightly from regal home to informative museum. On the upper floor of the mansion the rooms were much more plain and sparse than on the lower levels; despite being a family of incredible wealth, the Turnblad clan were actually very modest (and incredibly introverted) people who preferred to do their day-to-day living in simple quarters. [Which is quite a Scandinavian trait; and rather Minnesotan, too.] As a result, the empty third-floor rooms were the perfect spaces for informative displays, and it is here that the Sami exhibit really came to life. Examples of Sami attire, gear, arts, and crafts permeated the top level of the mansion. The institute even had one room dedicated to child-friendly, hands-on, interactive educational pieces (like a 5’ tall teepee [with a mock fire!] that kids could sit in [the teepee, not the fire], a child-size kitchen with wooden play food, samples of Sami hand-bent twig baskets and felted/woven scarves that children could gently touch…) It was fun watching the small children take a break from hunting Easter eggs to play with (and learn about) the Sami way of life.
Having walked through and looked at every component of the mansion and museum, my BIL and I made our way back to the main floor, out the back door, past the carriage house, and returned to the cultural center – which led us to the café. It was 11:45 am, and definitely time for lunch.
My BIL and I were both surprised by the quality of the café; it was not a grab-and-go, seat-yourself cafeteria-style outfit (which is what I expect from most museums), but rather a host-will-seat-you, waitress-will-serve-you, all-food-is-made-to-order restaurant. After looking over the menu, my BIL chose: an open-face sandwich of mushroom and orange spread on rye bread, topped with some type of Scandinavian white creamy cheese, pickled pear, and frisée; a side of roasted fingerling potatoes with sautéed greens, capers, anchovy, and cream sauce; and a cup of green tea. I chose: a slice of butternut squash, cheese, and egg bake that was topped with some sort of delicious green smear, and served with a small green salad tossed in vinaigrette; and a side of sautéed Brussels sprouts with garlic and crisp onion, and a smear of Västerbotten – whatever that is. (Google tells me it’s some sort of cheese…) While I can appreciate that some of this food may sound unappealing, it was all pretty fantastically delicious.
After finishing our mains and sides, of course my BIL and I indulged in dessert. We chose to split a serving of vanilla bean cheesecake that sat on a gingerbread cracker crust, and came topped with candied ginger and a side of citrus. It was also phenomenal.
Yet as good as the food was, what I enjoyed most of the meal was the conversation I had with my BIL. As I said at the beginning of this post, he and I don’t get to spend a lot of time together, but I really value, appreciate, and genuinely like him. He is smart and witty, he has an engaging and open personality, and he is kind while still being firm when he needs to be. He’s an all-around good guy (he actually reminds me a lot of my husband), and I was happy to have the opportunity to talk with him about a variety of topics. (And indeed, we chatted about lots of different things – from vegan cooking to personal finance and investing, from business and unions to volunteerism and the passage of time as a whole…our 90-minute conversation ran the gamut.) We were both very open and relaxed, and the meal sped by.
Alas, everything must come to a close (see “the passage of time as a whole”, above), and at the end of the lunch my BIL and I stood, hugged, and went our separate ways. And while the experience we shared was (is) ephemeral, the memories that we created together will last a very, very long time – and that made this outing one of the very best gifts I have received in a long time. Thanks BIL.