Dr. Maren Anderson Johnson is an associate professor of Nordic Studies at Luther College and serves as the Tomson Family Chair in Norwegian Language and Modern Nordic Culture and director of the Torgerson Center for Nordic Studies. Naturally, this vibrant and dynamic leader is a perfect fit for her current role as a Vesterheim Trustee, in which she exemplifies the future of the museum.
It seems Maren was destined for her career in teaching Norwegian language and contemporary Norwegian culture, but her path was not always straightforward. Maren was born in the Midwest, and moved at age five to the Pacific Northwest (where her father served as the President of Pacific Lutheran University for 20 years). At just seven years of age, Maren was lucky to tag along with her parents on a school trip to Norway – Maren’s first time experiencing the country. This was in 1994, and just after the Lillehammer Olympics. Maren reflected on that trip, sharing, “It was grounding to see a place that had always existed in a mythical way in my family. All four sets of my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States.” Her grandparents went along on this trip as well, and Maren especially remembers the experience of visiting Norway with her grandfather. “He was the most proud Norwegian American I’ve ever met. He said the Norwegian Table Prayer at every holiday and was passionate about making sure Norwegian heritage was really celebrated in our family.”
As Maren grew older, she traveled to Norway several more times and attended language camps. At some point, however, she got tired of it. Maren said, “I remember I didn’t want to study heritage anymore, and at the time, I wanted nothing to do with Norwegian.” When she enrolled as a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, she declared a double major in French and political science.
The summer before her sophomore year of college, Maren was in Geneva doing translation work at the United Nations. Her parents were leading a study tour in Norway, so she got on a plane to Lillehammer to go and meet them. As soon as she put her feet on the ground in Lillehammer, just as she had at age seven, a light bulb went off. She said, “Oh my gosh – this. I’m curious about this now.” When she returned to college classes, she enrolled in Norwegian 101 right away. She transferred to Pacific Lutheran University and chose Norwegian Language and Literature as her major, and ended up pursuing graduate school at the University of Washington. She’s been a professor at Luther since the fall of 2014.
When asked to explain the partnership between Vesterheim and Luther College’s Nordic Studies program, Maren said, “We have this beautiful marriage between the two. The museum tells the story of immigrant cultures and what they bring to the United States, and then at Luther, we get to focus on what those stories mean in the contemporary world. How do we use those connections to inform studies and inquiry today?”
This partnership is not only in theory; it exists in practice as well. Luther’s Nordic Studies students fill various roles at Vesterheim, including interns, volunteers, and tour guides. They also participate in Vesterheim Folk Art School by running an after-school program called Norsk Skole for third through fifth graders.
During Vesterheim’s pivot to digital programming in the first months of the pandemic, Maren and the Nordic Studies program played a huge role. She’s taught dozens of virtual classes for Vesterheim with the help of her students. Maren said about the experience, “These online programs are just a blast! I so admire all the work everyone at Vesterheim has done in the last 18 months. What’s happened to this place in this time is phenomenal.” Some of the popular online classes offered by Maren and her students are bokprats, or book clubs. Within the book discussions, Nordic Studies students step in as small group discussion leaders. Maren said, “With programs like this, I always say it is so important to keep the question of ‘Why?’ in front of you. What is the benefit? Why will this matter in the future? I’m so thankful for this partnership with Vesterheim, because my students can meet people across the country and the world, and also see the power and passion they bring to the museum’s mission.”
Online Norwegian language courses have been another joint endeavor between Vesterheim and Luther. In October of 2020, instruction started with level one. Then students started asking for level two, and then three. Next year, there will be a level four! This experience of following Vesterheim Folk Art School students throughout this digital journey has been perhaps the most rewarding for Maren. Over and over again, students in these classes are thankful for the opportunities to connect to stories. Maren recalled an experience at the end of the first level two classes she taught. She took a moment to ask each student, ‘Why are you learning Norwegian?’ The responses left an imprint on her. Some students came back with typed pages, sharing their story. Others talked about their grandparents and memories of the stories they told in Norwegian. Another student shared about a cousin in Norway who wrote them an email and they wanted to be able to respond back in Norwegian. “I have learned so much from these people in the last year and a half! Vesterheim has a powerful mission and a vision to bring people together. That mission invites people into a really gracious and hospitable partnership with each other.”
Maren has three words to share with anyone who is curious to try an online program with Vesterheim: “GO FOR IT!” She continued, “Please, please try it. Everyone has a surprise waiting for them. It’s not just a transfer of knowledge, it’s an experience. You get to develop community.”
Finally, Maren reflected on the museum’s future and the compelling story that is developing. “Stories change and grow over time as more people become involved. The fact that Vesterheim’s audience has grown six-fold over the last year shows we are walking into the next chapter. The immigrants who came wanted to have this – that their story would be ever-unfolding and be full of possibility and growth. That’s what Vesterheim’s next chapter is about: possibility and growth.”
Johnson received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Scandinavian language and literature from the University of Washington and B.A. in Norwegian language and literature from Pacific Lutheran University. She joined Vesterheim’s Board of Trustees in 2016.