A History of The House of Emigrants
Research Center and Museum on Swedish Migration

by JoAnn Hanson-Stone

The House of Emigrants (i.e., Swedish Emigrant Institute) is an internationally known research center and museum on Swedish migration located in Vaxjo, in the province of Smaland in south central Sweden.(See Appendix I). The Institute holds 25,000-30,000 materials on Swedish emigration and life abroad in the archives and has accommodated well over a million visitors since its inauguration in June 1968 (Beijbom, 1994:1).

I chose to write the history of the Swedish Emigrant Institute for several reasons. First, I had the pleasure of visiting the Institute during August 2000 on a research scholarship and wished to know more about its origins and development. Second, the Swedish Emigrant Institute offers a diverse array of services. It houses "Europe’s largest collection of emigration history" including archival materials and library references (The Swedish Emigrant Institute and the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo, 1995), provides assistance in genealogical research, sponsors scholarly research and academic conferences, and mounts exhibitions on migration to and from Sweden.

Lastly, the Swedish Emigrant Institute was founded to promote emigration research at all levels and to consolidate contacts with Swedish emigrants and their descendants. The Institute was enthusiastically supported by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg who donated the complete source material from his famous emigrant novels of Karl Oskar and Kristina’s immigration to Chisago County, Minnesota from Smaland in 1851. In a way, the Swedish Emigrant Institute is as much about Vilhelm Moberg as it is the great Swedish migration of the last 150 years. I thought it would be interesting to learn more about his dynamic and complex writer.

Swedish Emigrant Institute
The Swedish Emigrant Institute was founded on September 11, 1965 and, now, resides in the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo. (See Appendix II). Its founder was Gunnar Helen, the newly elected county governor of Kronoberg, Smaland in which Vaxjo is the "county seat."

The popular interest generated by emigration history in the 1960's made it clear that academic research was not enough for such a center. Governor Gunnar Helen envisioned a building especially designed with facilities for family research, exhibitions, lectures, films and other educational and outreach activities. The vision became a reality soon after Swedish sculptor Axel Olsson had donated his famous emigrant monument of Karl Oskar and Kristina to the Swedish Emigrant Institute. Olsson’s statue of Karl Oskar and Kristina became the focal point in the first exhibition hall.

The Vilhelm Moberg manuscript collection and artifacts created an exhibition in the "Moberg Room" where visitors can see the interior of his small cottage in which the desk, chair, pens, paper and research materials he used in writing his emigrant trilogy are displayed. Photographs, paintings, labels, documents and other artifacts are also displayed showing differing aspects of the famous Swedish author’s life. The permanent exhibition, "The Dream of America," opened to the public on June, 1968. Finally the building itself was dedicated on August 31, 1968.

With the purchase of microfilms containing passport journals and summaries of census reports, the Institute became the owner of important statistical source material.

Academicians studying emigration history were once mainly interested in major population movements and in constructing descriptive models for the "proper" understanding of emigration as a major social force. However, most historians realized that studies on the macro level "dangled in mid-air" without individual accounts on the micro-level. Perspectives from the micro-level underlies the usefulness of the emigrant’s personal story available in the Institute’s extensive source materials.

Vilhelm Moberg’s source material from his emigrant novels assured the Swedish Emigrant Institute’s role in linking its function to the individual emigrant and the conditions that caused the emigration (Beijbom, 1994:7). As a result, the America letter, the emigrant diary, oral history interviews, and other personal documents became more important in the development of the Institute’s archives holdings than the large statistical series. The Swedish Emigrant Institute was in an excellent position to corroborate with, both, professional scholars and amateur historians conducting family research or local history projects. In recent years, the level of emigration studies on the university level has diminished as the interest in genealogical research has expanded significantly.

The main collections available in the Swedish Emigrant Institute dealing with emigration research and other source materials are: (a) Swedish parish records; (b) passport journals; summary census reports from various parish offices; (c) Swedish passenger lists; (d) Swedish American church archives; (e) emigrant organizational archives such as the Swedish Ladies Society in New York, the Orders of Vikings, Svithiod, and Vasa which had lodges in most sizable Swedish settlements and mutual aid societies;; (f) America letters and diaries; and, (g) printed source materials dealing with emigration and Swedish pioneer settlers such as autobiographies and oral history interviews of Swedish emigrants, emigrant guides, pamphlets, broadsides, copies of Swedish American newspapers, local histories, and literature from the Swedish emigrant communities

Museum Exhibitions
The Dream of America is the oldest of the permanent exhibitions housed in the Swedish Emigrant Institute’s House of Emigrants. It tells the story of Swedish emigration to America through pictures, models, statistics, sound recordings and artifacts, reflecting the background, cause and result of the mass exodus of Swedes between 1843-1930. Transoceanic emigration brought more than 1.2 million Swedes to North America. This exodus stands out as one of the greatest in Europe - Sweden’s intensity of emigration was only exceeded by that of Ireland and Norway. One out of every six Swedish-born people lived in the United States in 1900. (Swedish Emigrant Institute web site: 2000).

The Dream of America exhibit is divided into five "themes." "The Background" theme addresses life in Sweden and migration patterns within and from Sweden as a result of famine and industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Other themes include "The Decision" to leave Sweden, "The Voyage" to America and life abroad the emigrant ship, the "Dream and Reality" of life in North America and Minnesota, and "The Cultural Frontier" in the new world highlighting Bishop Hill in northern Illinois, Swedish American church life and the fine arts.

The Dream of America is supplemented by a variety of exhibitions on themes like "Snoose Boulevard" a Swedish street scene from Chicago, the Titanic and the Swedish emigrants on board, and a Charles Lindbergh piece. Temporary exhibits rotate on a yearly basis. During the summer of 2000, a permanent exhibition was installed entitled, A Long Way Home - Swedish Immigration to Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota (1890-1940). The exhibit was a gift from the citizens of Duluth, Minnesota, Vaxjo’s Sister City, and a port of entry for thousands of Swedish immigrants. (See Appendix III).

The Moberg Room and the "Writer’s Studio" are also part of the Swedish Emigrant Institute’s exhibition space. This room illustrates the 12 years of work that Vilhelm Moberg sent writing his immortal emigrant novels. On exhibit are Moberg’s original manuscript and the desk at which he completed one of the most remarkable chapters of Swedish literary history on July 12, 1959.

In his emigrant novels, written between 1949 and 1959, Moberg tells the story of 16 emigrants from Ljuder parish in Smaland, who emigrated and settled in Chisago County, Minnesota in 1850. For twelve years Moberg worked on his emigrant epic, an enormous task based on sources from both Smaland and the United States, particularly the Minnesota Historical Society. These extensive research materials were donated in 1968 to the Swedish Emigrant Institute and became the foundation of the Institute’s archival collections.

The Moberg Room displays the original transcripts, excerpts, notes, photographs and other documents in such a way that visitors feel they have met Vilhelm Moberg in his "writing workshop." This invaluable collection is "guarded" by Karl Oskar and Kristina, as portrayed by Axel Olsson in his sculpture Emigrants. Since 1989, the Vilhelm Moberg Literary Society has had its headquarters in The House of Emigrants. The Society’s purpose is to promote publications, research and popular interest in Moberg’s literary works.