Stoughton's new Norwegian heritage center set to open

Just two weeks ahead of the grand opening of Livsreise, Stoughton’s new Norwegian heritage center, June Bunting and Jerry Gryttenholm are seeing their vision realized. Bunting expects the grand opening to be “eventful,” while Gryttenholm says it will be “a relief.”

Then, they stop and reconsider. “But it’s all about Janet,” they insist.

Janet Bryant, widow of Edwin Bryant, one of the original founders of Nelson Muffler Corp. in Stoughton (later Nelson Industries, and now Cummins), was one of the community’s most distinguished and generous residents. She died in 2010 at the age of 91, but her legacy will live on through the efforts of Bunting and Gryttenholm, managers of the Edwin E. and Janet L. Bryant Foundation, who have worked tirelessly to bring Livsreise (Lifs rye sa) to the Stoughton community Janet so cherished.

The Bryant Foundation supports about 40 different organizations on an annual basis, with the majority located in Stoughton. It also offers a scholarship program administered by Scholarship America. But everything the foundation does, it does quietly. “That’s Janet,” Bunting said.

After her passing, the foundation trustees decided it was important to honor their friend’s legacy. After all, her mission statement, they said, was always, “Stoughton first.”

History in the making

Livsreise is the culmination of three-and-a-half years of work. The state-of-the-art heritage center celebrates Stoughton’s Norwegian roots, telling the stories of the people who made the trek to and settled in America and Stoughton between 1825 and 1910, in particular.

Starting with a blank slate, Gryttenholm paid visits to heritage and cultural centers around the Midwest, speaking with center representatives about their experiences and lessons learned.

The foundation then hired Madison-based Zebradog to help with storytelling. After consulting with an elderly Norwegian woman, the name Livsreise emerged. “You won’t find this term in a Norwegian dictionary,” Gryttenholm says. “It’s a phrase meaning life’s journey.”

Livsreise, designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc. (TKWA) of Cedarburg and built by Madison-based Vogel Bros., will always remain free of charge, and supported and maintained “in perpetuity” by the Bryant Foundation.

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Fine design

Inside, stunning wooden trusses rise 43 feet in the air, like a cathedral. The main, 9,000-square-foot exhibition space beneath is bright, open, and uncluttered. “We did not want to be generic,” Gryttenholm said. “It’s more about the people, the life journey of the people.”

A selection of Norwegian artifacts are placed around the rooms, some part of a permanent display, others temporarily on loan from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, such as hand-painted trunks, musical instruments, tools, and linens.

But the emphasis is not on the artifacts as much as the technology, thanks to technical wizardry that bring stories to life through videos presented throughout, including on pieces of wall art.

Along the front wall, an interactive display traces the geographic journey Norwegian immigrants may have traveled on their long trek to the land of opportunity, complemented with film clips of Norwegians first setting foot on American soil.

At a kiosk in the center of the room, visitors can electronically “flip” through family stories in an illustrated, virtual storybook.

Genealogy stations, linked to the Naeseth Library in Madison, are available for those wanting to research their own family trees, and a 68-seat, handicap-accessible auditorium streams films, videos, and DVDs, including selections from the Grieg Museum in Norway.

“In the early days, Stoughton was 90% Norwegian,” Gryttenholm explained, “before many moved on to Minnesota and all the way to Washington state. But the core was right here.”

While Livsreise celebrates the community’s heritage, the Bryant Foundation hopes it will spark an economic boost in Stoughton as well.

“Ten, 15 years ago, the whole focus was on Syttende Mai. We’re trying to help the community with a destination point rather than just a [weekend] pass-through, and hoping this becomes a big, relevant piece that brings people to town on those other days so they’ll spend more time here.

“We’re trying to raise the bar so the downtown community will do more to help themselves.”

Alle er velkommen!

(Everyone’s welcome!)

And you don’t need to be Norwegian to appreciate what the center has to offer. After all, Janet Bryant was not Norwegian. She was a German who simply loved Stoughton.

“It doesn’t matter what your heritage is,” Gryttenholm explained. “The stories are all the same. They came to America for a better life. What we’re trying to do is get us into the future.”

Livsreise is not a museum, he insists. It is a technological journey through time that is designed for all age groups, now and well into the future. “If we don’t keep the younger generation engaged, and the Norwegian culture relevant, we will lose the people interested in it and it will die.”

He and Bunting are doing their part, in Janet Bryant’s legacy, to make sure that does not happen. “We’ve taken so much time, and been so diligent to make sure that when we’re no longer here, [Livsreise] is still going to be great,” Bunting said.

But they’re doing it for personal reasons, too –– for Janet, their friend, and for the Stoughton she loved and supported. “Whenever we do something, it’s not about the Bryant Foundation,” Gryttenholm said. “It’s about Janet Bryant. And it’s not about what we do with the opportunities she’s given us. We’re very upfront about that.”

Bunting nods. “Our hope is that 50 years from now, Livsreise is as relevant as it is today, and that the quality of the building will stand the test of time. Everything in it is of the highest quality possible.”

So, what would Janet say about Livsreise?

“She’s smiling at us,” said Bunting, tearing up.

“She’d be very proud,” echos Gryttenholm.

Livsreise’s grand opening will be held during Stoughton’s Syttende Mai weekend on Saturday, May 16.

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