It is impossible to discuss the history of the ASHM without talking about Amandus Johnson (1877 - 1974), without whom the Museum might not exist. For as much as he did, though, Amandus Johnson did not do it all alone. The Museum's foundation and construction happened because of the will and the financial commitment of a national Swedish-American community.
Amandus Johnson was born in 1877 in Småland, Sweden, but he grew up in Rice Lake Minnesota. In 1904, he graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, with a baccalaureate in English literature and a preaching certificate. His interest in the 17th century Swedish settlement of the Delaware Valley brought him to Philadelphia. He received a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, for his dissertation about the New Sweden colony (1638-55). In 1908 he founded the Swedish Colonial Society.
In the second decade of the 20th century Swedish Americans began looking for a suitable way to commemorate the tercentenary of the Swedish arrival on the Delaware shores in 1638. Johnson was appointed to a committee to plan ways to preserve the memory of the New Sweden colony. Another member of the committee, Lutheran Reverend Julius Lincoln, from Chicago, secured links with Chicago's large and affluent Swedish-American community that would prove to be vital when it came time to raise money for the ASHM.
By 1926 the Swedish-American Sesquicentennial Association had been formed, with headquarters in Chicago and Amandus Johnson as its president. Soon the first national campaign was underway to erect a Swedish Museum. From his research into New Sweden's history, Johnson knew that the land in which Philadelphia's celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was to take place in 1926 was a part of a land grant Sweden's Queen Christina gave to colonist Sven Skute in 1653. In what better way could Swedish Americans take part in the celebration than by building their museum in the middle of it all?
On June 2, 1926, Sweden's Crown Prince (Later King Gustav VI Adolf) placed the Museum's cornerstone. Chicago-based Swedish-American architect John Nyden designed the building, with conceptual assistance from Amandus Johnson. Johnson wanted the building to include architectural features found in Eriksbergs slott, a 17th-century mansion in Sweden, and in Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in Virginia (the Museum's arcades remind us of the latter). By October 1927 construction was nearly finished. In the fall of 1928, Christian von Schneidau painted the Museum's entrance-hall ceiling and wall murals, but the stock market crash in October, 1929, and the following depression caused things to slow down dramatically.
Johnson's original plan called for 18 exhibition rooms, but he settled for 16, each dedicated to a field of activity in which, as he put it, "the Swedes of this country have been prominent.” One of the first galleries to be finished was the John Ericsson Room (dedicated on June 5, 1932). Created by Swedish architect Martin Hedmark (1896-1980), it remains an outstanding example of art deco design.
In September 1936 the Swedish government appointed The Royal New Sweden Tercentenary Commission, which organized a national drive in Sweden to obtain funds for a monument to be erected in Wilmington, Delaware, on the spot where the Swedes supposedly had landed in 1638. There also would be a special exhibition at the ASHM, to be opened by the same Crown Prince Gustav Adolf who had laid the cornerstone in 1926. The event came to serve as ASHM's formal public dedication and took place on June 28, 1938, the second day of the tercentenary celebrations. The Crown Prince had been taken ill during the voyage from Sweden and remained aboard ship. His son, Prince Bertil, and Crown Princess Louise made up the royal party that dedicated the Museum.
In the early 1970s, there were rumors that the park around Philadelphia's Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church could be the site for the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The church, just off what is now Columbus Boulevard, was founded in 1700 as a mission congregation of the Church of Sweden. At the Museum, where the lack of funds was a constant problem, this led to thought in some quarters of closing down the present Museum and making a fresh start at that site. A special committee was appointed to look into the Museum's future prospects. In February 1974, a divided committee submitted two different proposals. One advocated closing the Museum and continuing work as a foundation at a site close to Gloria Dei. The other recommended continuing as a museum, but making an effort to revitalize and get ready to take part in the Bicentennial with its planned royal visit. The latter plan was adopted, and ever since, the Museum has used historical commemorations to strengthen itself.
Today, the Museum has 12 permanent galleries displaying a broad and interesting collection combining history and culture. There is also the Nord Library, a research library with a collection focusing on the history of the 17 th century New Sweden Colony, the 19 th century Swedish immigration to the United States, Swedish traditions and areas directly related to the Museum’s collections. The latter includes a significant collection of John Ericsson papers, Fredrika Bremer letters, and Jenny Lind memorabilia.