To have a look at the Statue of Liberty free of scaffolding, you could do worse than pay a visit to the exhibition "The Promise of America" at the Henie-Onstad modern-art museum just outside Oslo. There she is, right by the fiord on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital. Of course, it's only a replica of the Liberty Island original, which is now being renovated.
The exhibition, open until Sept. 16, tells the story of Norwegian emigration to the United States -- 800,000 emigrated, and today 3.6 million Americans claim Norwegian ancestry. (Norway itself has just over 4 million people today.)
Among those who left -- most of them because of abject poverty in the backward parts of rural Norway in the latter half of the 19th century -- was one Frederik Mundal from Fjaerland in Sogn, Norwegian fiord country. His name was transcribed by immigration officials to Mondale, and his great-grandson Walter has just been nominated the Democratic presidential candidate. There were others who made good: Knute Rockne, the football coach; Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and Hubert Humphrey, a "norski" in spite of his Anglo-Saxon family name (his mother was from the Tveit family, and she was born in southern Norway).
And there was Ole Rolvaag, who wrote the great epic of Norwegian immigration, "Giants in the Earth." He did it both in English and in Norwegian, and his son Karl went on to become governor of the state of -- what else? -- Minnesota.
There was also "the crazy Norwegian," Carl Howelsen, a ski jumper who was a performing artist with Barnum and Bailey in the first decade of this century: He jumped over a varying number of elephants in the circus ring.
Visitors to the exhibition actually do "emigrate." They look at the meager life in rural Norway around 1860 and are tempted by the advertising material from the different shipping companies that sent agents trawling the valleys of Norway with their promises of a radiant future across the ocean. The visitors go on a "ship," "arrive" in Brooklyn where a glorious new bridge is being built ("I'll sell it to you," said U.S. ambassador Mark E. Austad when the exhibition was opened), and read the railroad pamphlets and the promises of a homestead on fertile soil in the Midwest.
Among the highlights are the pictures of Andrew Dahl, a traveling photographer who worked in the Norwegian communities in southern Wisconsin in the 1860s, bringing his homemade darkroom with him on a wagon. His pictures, found in a barn in Wisconsin not many years ago, have been blown up to life-size and give an overpowering impression of the stark, demanding life facing the settlers. They do not look overly humorous, those Norwegians, but there was hardly much to be humorous about.
Children who visit "The Promise of America" on weekends can go on a boat trip around the peninsula where the museum stands, arrive at "Ellis Island," go through the immigration procedure and then continue by horse-drawn coach across the prairie.
The exhibition poster, designed by Harald Gulli, is perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibit. It can be turned around like a playing card, with the upper half showing a front view of a Norwegian family with their typical rose-painted storage chest and their backs turned toward the mountains. On the lower half, they appear as reflections in the water -- but now facing the Manhattan skyline, and the "Promise of America." Their backs are toward the viewer -- and their past.