Long Thread Podcast: Laurann Gilbertson

Season 3, Episode 7: As the curator of Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School, Laurann Gilbertson has a dream job for lovers of historic textiles.

Anne Merrow Oct 15, 2021 - 3 min read

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The Vesterheim has 80 spinning wheels.

Laurann Gilbertson says that they didn't really mean to have so many, but it seems that every woman who emigrated from Norway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came prepared to make the cloth she needed to run her household: the wool and linen krokbragd coverlets, linens for wearing and bedding, carefully embellished folk costume, and all the other textiles that a woman in a new country and generations after her would need to live comfortably. In time, she might switch to commercial cotton thread for her hardanger embroidery or stop spinning her own sheep's wool, but producing cloth was an important part of life, so it's best to be prepared.

The spinning wheels are treasures (but the museum probably won't accept any more).

The museum also has rugs, coverlets, hand coverings, folk garments, knitwear (of course!), tapestries, and other Norwegian and Norwegian-American items from a Viking sword to Rosemaling chests to photographs and furnishings. Have you ever wondered what goes on in the back rooms of your favorite museum, the areas where all of the treasures are stored and the researchers pore over the collections with white gloves? Laurann shares the joys of working with, learning about, and caring for a museum's collections. as well as some of the difficult decisions that curators face.

Laurann offers expert advice on how to make the most of a museum—and how to make the most of your own family's treasures, museum-worthy or not. Vesterheim is one of many museums centered on a specific cultural or historic focus, but the elements of running a museum are shared across the field: collecting and preserving according to a policy, assisting in research for scholars, making the collection available to the public, and promoting education about the museum's area of interest.

Vesterheim Museum is located in Decorah, Iowa.

This episode is brought to you by:

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PieceWork interview with Laurann Gilbert
Viking TV visit to Vesterheim
Tattoo: Identity Through Ink
Vesterheim Folk Art School
National Nordic Museum

Anne Merrow is a former editor of Spin Off magazine and a cofounder and editorial director of Long Thread Media.