Friday, July 30, 2010

AMERICAN SWEDISH INSTITUTE: Reminding US That We're All Immigrants & To Be Tourists in Our Own City

Once upon a time the King of Sweden visited Minnesota.  During a parade in his honor there was a shout from the crowd, someone using the King's given name - not his royal name - and the king turned to see a boyhood friend. They tearfully embraced and with emotion exchanged stories from their childhood together.

Or maybe it was the King of Norway, or the Crown Prince of Sweden. Which king? Not sure. Which royal visit to Minnesota? Get back to me on that. Who was shouting from the crowd? My great (great?) grandfather. He had grown up around royalty because his father was the head honcho Royal Mason who built stuff for the Swedish kings.

We all have these flippant stories with murky details about our ancestors - speculations of royal illegitimacy or grandmothers who refuse to talk about where she got her dark eyes.

My visit to the American Swedish Institute yesterday reminded me that it might be fun to take genealogy seriously. While I've toyed with the idea for years, I've also told myself over and over again that our ancestors don't matter. Today matters. Now matters. What's the point in digging up bones? Don't I and all Americans just need to let it all go?  The way heritage was described in my family - "She/He was a Proud German." (and pride as one of the greatest evils, mind you). "He/She was a Stubborn Swede."  "He/She was a Crazy Norwegian." - it was seldom something to be proud of.

As I toured the museum exhibits a lady came up to me with a survey. She asked me:
1. Is this your first visit to the Swedish Institute?


2. What brings you to the Museum today?

The Finnish Architects exhibit (My Paradise: Finnish & Finnish American Summer Architecture) but I've been meaning to stop in for quite a while.

3. Are you Swedish?

Yes, partially.

4. In what ways do you celebrate or practice your Swedish heritage?

Um. Hmmm. Ahhhh.... None really.

(she looked disappointed)

Maybe a few recipes?

And then we chatted for a bit.

All I have from Sweden was a crazy stonemason grandfather who told crazy stories. Perhaps when I practice writing I practice my Swedish storytelling heritage... or when I played with legos or puzzles as a kid and salivate over architecture as an adult I celebrate the Swedish Stonemason genes. Or when I obsessively write about religion I celebrate my Swedish Baptist ancestors who preached or claimed to be related to the crazy Christian mystic Swedenborg.

There are no Swedish recipes - I lied about that. My grandmothers passed on German recipes, but no Scandinavian ones. The first time I stuffed my face with Scandinavian food was when my Norwegian college fed us smorgasbord style at Christmas.

Yes, I lied about the recipes.

I overheard the lady telling other volunteers, "The only thing people say they still celebrate about their Swedish heritage is the food."

"Yep. Isn't that too bad?  The majority of our visitors say that."

Believe it or not, this post is meant to praise and plug the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.  The Museum is housed in the gorgeous Turnblad mansion and they are expanding their space.  The mansion is worth visiting just for the sake of the mansion - and if you're into your Swedish or immigrant heritage there are permanent exhibits about Swedish emigration/immigration, a huge painting of Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale, and a well-stocked gift store including books on how we can learn about environmental and socially conscious civic life from modern Scandinavians.  I downed two cups of coffee in the Kaffestuga before hopping on my bike to go have a margarita and quesadilla elsewhere.  But I will return.

FYI: Hennepin County Libraries offer FREE Museum passes! 

In what way do you celebrate or suppress your heritage?

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