American Swedish Historical Museum: Celebrating Swedish Culture
1900 Pattison Ave
On land that was once the New Sweden colony in the 1600s, the American Swedish Historical Museum stands at 1900 Pattison Ave in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. Historian and professor, Amandus Johnson, founded the museum in 1926. Johnson wished to “create a love among Americans of Swedish descent for the country they have helped to found and develop.” Colleagues described him as “energetic and scholarly.” He remained active in the museum after he retired as curator.
In 1926, Philadelphia held the World’s Fair to honor the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is commonly called the Sesquicentennial International Exhibition. Amandus Johnson was president of the Swedish-American committee for the Fair. The committee aspired to preserve the memory of the New Sweden colony and celebrate Swedish-American cultural contributions. On June 2, 1926, Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf laid the cornerstone for the building that would be used for the World’s Fair. Afterward, the space was converted into the American Swedish Historical Museum. In 1938, the museum was publicly dedicated to honor the 300th anniversary of the New Sweden Colony.
Swedish-American architect, John Nyden, represented both Swedish and American styles with his design. He modeled the main building after the Ericsberg Castle in Sweden. The cupula resembles the one on top of City Hall in Stockholm. Nyden took inspiration from Mount Vernon for the structures on either side of the museum. In 1928, Swedish artist Christian von Schneidau painted the ceiling mural. It depicts New Sweden settlers arriving to the Delaware Valley in 1638. The whole project was estimated to have cost around $400,000.
Johnson described the interior of the museum as a collection of smaller museums. Each of the 16 rooms had the name of an accomplished Swede and focused on various areas of Swedish-American history. For example, the Fredrika Bremer room was named for the Swedish author and feminist. The exhibition in the room is dedicated to the accomplishments of Swedish-American women. Three rooms focused on the history of the New Sweden colony and the experiences of the settlers. Other rooms showcased accomplishments in an array of fields, such as science, the humanities, and the arts. Today, the museum has 12 rooms, the Nord research library, and the model interior of an 1800s farm home.
Recent temporary exhibitions offer a glimpse into diverse areas of Swedish culture. A photography exhibition called “Sami – Walking with Reindeer” showed the daily lives of the indigenous Sami people. The “Portraits of Migration” exhibition presented the stories of people who found asylum in Sweden. The museum also displayed textiles gifted to them in 1938 by women from each of the 75 Swedish provinces. These textiles served as an example of beautiful Swedish craftwork, as well as an emblem of feminism. Another exhibition celebrated the 100th birthday of Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Recently, the museum displayed glass and fiber art exhibitions by modern Swedish artists. These exhibitions generally present the lesser-known stories of Swedish culture.
The museum holds an array of events to offer experiences with Swedish culture. In the earlier decades, the Women’s Auxiliary planned the events. In 1938, the Women’s Auxiliary held a 300 year anniversary festival for the New Sweden Colony. This coincided with the public dedication of the museum. They also originated the St. Lucia’s Festival and the May Fete, which still continue today. St Lucia’s Day in December commemorates the Christian St. Lucy. Children wear white robes and hold candles to celebrate her sacrifice. May Fete is a summer festival where dancers perform around the May Pole. Recently, the museum hosted Christmas-themed events, such as a buffet meal called “Julbord” and a tasting event for a hot-spiced wine called “Glogg.” Also offered are author talks, events for kids, and language classes.
Since its opening, the oldest Swedish museum in the country has provided programing and events to celebrate Swedish culture. Because he believed that the contributions of immigrants helped build America, Amandus Johnson wished for the museum to educate on the contributions of Swedish immigrants, as well as foster pride among Swedish-Americans for future generations. According to Johnson, the Swedish Council in New York referred to the museum as a “crazy idea by a crazy professor.” As the American Swedish Historical Museum nears its 100th anniversary, it is clear that they were wrong. Today, the museum continues to celebrate Swedish-Americans.