Experience / Exhibitions / extra/ordinary


extra/ordinary was a playful and imaginative new exhibition produced by the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in celebration of its 90th anniversary that explored 29 objects from ASI’s permanent collection and the untold stories behind them.

On view from February 29 – July 5, 2020, the exhibition invited visitors to not only re-discover the wonder of objects, many on public display for the first time, but to also experience the Turnblad Mansion in new ways through encounters with such fun surprises as a 20-foot-tall Dala horse and a ballroom full of balls. extra/ordinary matched the historical artifacts, including carvings, photographs, textiles and musical instruments, with original watercolor paintings and ink illustrations by the Minnesota mother-son team of Tara Sweeney and Nate Christopherson.

Developed by ASI, the 7,500 square foot extra/ordinary exhibition transformed the historic Mansion by going beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary through unexpected and immersive museum experiences, opening select rooms to the public for the first time in decades, and the juxtaposition of objects and artworks. extra/ordinary was inspired by A to Zäåö: Playing with History at the American Swedish Institute (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), and illustrated by Sweeney’s watercolors and Christopherson’s pen-and-ink drawings.

In the exhibition, the book’s curious characters found their way into the Mansion as storytellers who bring meaning to the stories behind the objects. The exhibition raised the question, “What do we keep, and why?” Over the past 90 years at ASI, museum curators have pondered this as they’ve accessioned more than 25,000 unique artifacts that make up the museum’s object, library and archival collections. Sometimes the answer lies in who made the object, or the techniques used to create it. Most often, however, the answer can be found in the object’s story.

A seemingly everyday teacup became a treasured artifact when it was revealed to represent one of Europe’s second oldest ceramic manufacturers. An intricate woodcarving became spectacular when viewed as an artwork by one of the most recognized Scandinavian flat-plane carvers of all time. New life was breathed into an old instrument when visitors learned that it represented an emotional link between an immigrant son and his Swedish father back home. Stories like these have made ASI’s collections a treasure to visitors and inspired stories of their own since ASI’s founding in 1929. The exhibition based on these objects and stories helped mark 90 years of ASI’s active service to the community.

The A to Zåäö book was inspired by a watercolor workshop that Tara Sweeney taught in 2016 using objects from ASI’s collection. She discovered that the students were as excited about sharing the artifacts’ heritage stories as they were about painting them. A Minnesota State Arts Board-supported residency at ASI in 2017 expanded the concept into a project that allowed Sweeney to focus on painting watercolors of objects that were selected by visitors. “The Salon of the Turnblad Mansion became a public studio where our progress could be viewed by visitors…whose stories and questions delighted and inspired us,” she commented.

ASI added Sweeney and Christopherson’s original works to its permanent collection and they were displayed alongside their corresponding objects in extra/ordinary.

Copies of A to Zåäö: Playing with History at the American Swedish Institute are available for sale in the ASI Museum Store.

Photo credits: Andrea Rugg Photography