It was the dream of Kurt Mathiasson, one of the leaders of the Anderssonville community and a Swedish immigrant himself, to preserve the Swedish-American heritage in Chicago. In 1976 he founded a small museum and a little over a decade later the Swedish American Museum Center opened at its current location.
“What a day it was!” says Kerstin Lane about the day the Swedish American Museum opened its doors at its current Chicago location. Together with founder Kurt Mathiasson, Lane had spent weeks getting everything ready in time for the
big opening.
“While we were working, many people stuck their noses in the door to take a look, and they told us we would never be done and that we would be a disgrace,” she remembers.
But they got it ready all right. On April 19, 1988, the museum glowed, and the street outside was ready for the parade. Security was in place as were the mayor and other politicians as well as a large crowd of excited people.
“I was standing there in the receiving line when I got word that the royal couple was approaching,” Lane continues. “And when I saw the limo with the Swedish flags, I started crying, because I was dead tired and I was going to see the King and the Queen up close the first time, I suppose.
But I quickly pulled myself together and the museum was officially opened!”
The first museum had been a small storefront log cabin in which family histories were collected. Mathiasson had borrowed material from Swedish immigrants so he could make a display. He asked Lane to join forces with him, and in 1986 she was hired
as the first employee for 5 hours a week at $5 an hour.
“That’s when things really started to happen,” she says. “Kurt was one of my best friends, and we often joked with each other and said that he was crazy to start the museum and I was half crazy to carry on with it with tremendous support of Kurt. But that’s just the way I am; all my life I’ve been interested in taking care of start-ups. And the museum… well, my husband says we have four children. The museum is like our fourth child. Every square inch I’ve either painted myself or had an opinion on.”
Lane, who is originally from Malmö and has a master’s degree in social work, came to Chicago on a scholarship, met her husband, Joe, and stayed. After living in several places, she came back to Chicago
in 1977.
When asked why we should hang on to values and traditions, especially as immigrants, Lane says it’s a security that is important for our well-being. “We are living in a truly global world and we learn a lot from other cultures around us, and if we believe that the Swedish culture is important then we need to share it with
our fellow world citizens.”
It was difficult, she admits, to realize that her children were growing up as Americans, when she wanted them so much to be Swedish.
“But we went to Sweden often, and spent the summers there, and they learned the language, the songs, and the traditions. They learned that herring is wonderful, and at our house Tomten (Santa Claus) always comes on the 24th with presents. When my son had his first child I asked only one thing and that was for my grand daughter to call me Farmor. That is maybe to please me but I also figure that one day she will wonder where that word came from and she will
be reminded of her Swedish heritage.”
Kerstin Lane stepped down after twenty years as the Museum's first Executive Director in 2006. The new Director, Karin Moen Abercrombie continues the Museum much in the spirit of Mathiason and Lane.
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