The year 2025 will mark the 200th anniversary of the first organized immigration of Norwegians to the United States. With that in mind, Decorah’s Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is launching a process to determine what it should aspire to be, or be doing, in 10 years. At the helm will be Chris Johnson ’87, who became Vesterheim’s president and chief executive officer in June 2015.
The heart of any museum is its storytelling, and Johnson has been captivated by the tales told at museums since he was a boy. The New Hampton, Iowa, native recalls field trips to Vesterheim, where his imagination took off with the 25-foot wooden sailboat Trade Wind that has anchored the main exhibit building for decades. That ship will remain a key display, Johnson says, but he wants Vesterheim’s planners to think about how such artifacts are used. Could the stories they tell be more engaging, more interactive, or more relevant to museum visitors of the future?
“The challenge with a place like Vesterheim,” Johnson says, “is that when this museum was founded in 1877 at Luther College, we had more people who were much closer to the immigrant experience—people who still spoke the language, who were first-generation immigrants. With each passing generation, we have to think about what are the important parts of our cultural identity that we retain and what has fallen by the wayside? What are those things that people are interested in rekindling to connect to their heritage?”
Once the museum’s strategic plan is determined, Johnson aims to take it on the road to the Decorah community as well as supporters farther afield. “We have to pull in a number of different audiences to help us answer these questions.” Then, he says, “we can figure out the next steps, whether it’s renovating our existing exhibit galleries or changing some of the configuration in the Open Air Division. Those are questions we can answer when we have a better idea about what it means to our audience if we change things.”
"We’re a nation made up of all different types of immigrant groups. That’s certainly talked about in the halls of Congress and on the news—what does it mean to be an American?—and those are storylines that are just as relevant here."
Johnson’s love of historical storytelling took root at Luther when he changed his major from biology to history. Influential professors included Jim Hippen and John Christianson, but, Johnson says, “I kind of minored in Richard Cole.”
Johnson’s first stop after graduation was an internship at Living History Farms (LHF) outside Des Moines, Iowa. He was a jack-of-all-trades, giving tours, working in the blacksmith’s shop, driving oxen, building bark lodges, and more. Eventually he was hired on full time and met his wife, Bonnie, who also worked there. Johnson spent much of his time as a site interpreter in the Ioway Indian village, an isolated spot that visitors reach via a woodland path. LHF was a good training ground for museum work, Johnson says, especially in dealing with people. He learned to explain the artifacts and his actions at the site in way that was clear and interesting to visitors from all over the world.
After a stint as the museum curator with the Dallas County (Iowa) Conservation Department, Johnson moved with Bonnie to Nebraska, where she had taken a teaching job in Unadilla, southeast of Lincoln. Johnson entered the museum studies graduate program at the University of Nebraska. Wrapping up his studies in 1997, he returned to Decorah for a summer internship at Vesterheim. He worked in the membership and development office, while Bonnie helped create a children’s exhibit.
Johnson spent the next 17 years with the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He began as a regional historic sites manager—there are 57 historic sites under the historical society’s umbrella—and in 2007 became the director for the society’s museum division. His staff managed about 63,000 objects, from thimbles to a Northern Pacific Railway locomotive.
Between 2011 and 2014, Johnson, his crew, and a consulting team took on a challenge for which storytelling seems too puny a word. The North Dakota Heritage Center expanded from 20,000 to 40,000 square feet of exhibit space. For this, they needed to relate a saga.
Much of Johnson’s job involved supervising the storyline development, figuring out which topics each gallery would examine. One gallery told an epic that began 500 million years ago when large swaths of what is now North Dakota lay under a vast inland sea. That story progressed from shark fossils to dinosaur bones to evidence of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and mastodons.
Another gallery dealt with the end of the Ice Age to about the 1860s and focused on the first peoples of North Dakota. Johnson’s team organized community forums for potential exhibits, similar to the discussions Johnson hopes to have in planning Vesterheim’s future. “Some good ideas came out of those conversations,” he says. “The importance of language was something that was really stressed. And so when you step into that gallery today, you can hear audio recordings of people speaking in Mandan and Hidatsa and Chippewa and Lakota and Assiniboine.”
Concerned that exhibits remain relevant as time goes on, the North Dakota team chose some themes, such as conflict and war, that tell the stories not only of the past—for instance, conflict between Indian tribes—but also of the present, reminding visitors that there are still 150 Minuteman III missiles parked in silos under the North Dakota landscape.
Johnson’s experience in crafting the North Dakota stories translates to the Vesterheim project in the way he looks for that continuing relevance. “We look at the immigrant experience through the lens of Norwegians coming to America in the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s, but a lot of those storylines are just as relevant today,” Johnson says. “We’re a nation made up of all different types of immigrant groups. That’s certainly talked about in the halls of Congress and on the news—what does it mean to be an American?—and those are storylines that are just as relevant here. These are universal stories: What cultural traditions do you retain? How important is it to retain the language or to learn the local language to become a success in life? What’s the role of education?”
These are questions the immigrants struggled with nearly 200 years ago, and they’re relevant today. Johnson hopes the Vesterheim staff and board can finish an initial 10-year plan by October and then hit the road for those community discussions about how, precisely, the stories can be told.