Danish Immigrant Museum thrives on the plains of Iowa

ELKHORN, Iowa — It's just a little farming community in western Iowa. At first glance, some might consider it an unlikely place for an institution with a national focus and stature like the Danish Immigrant Museum. And it might seem an odd fit to have a Tennessee native with no Danish ancestral lineage serve as its executive director.

Rick Burns, a returned Denmark missionary, directs Danish Immigrant Museum.
Rick Burns, a returned Denmark missionary, directs Danish Immigrant Museum. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

But closer examination yields different conclusions.

As it turns out, director Rick Burns holds a degree from BYU in history with a minor in Scandinavian studies.

"They let me in the club because I speak Danish," quipped Brother Burns, who has held the directorship formally since August, having been interim director and having served briefly in the position about four years ago.

It was, in fact, his Church membership that put him on a path where he eventually would be eligible for the post he now occupies. He served a mission in Denmark from 1980 to 1982, an experience that gave him an abiding interest in the history and culture of that country.

Coupled with an MBA degree, his background gives him the energy needed to steer a museum that is still young and striving to make itself more prominent.

The 16,000-square-foot facility was completed in 1994, the fruit of an effort initiated 11 years earlier by Danish descendants. Thanks to a vigorous lobbying effort by townspeople — and a 20-acre site donation by the Lutherans — Elkhorn found itself on a short list, vying with Minneapolis as the location for the new facility. It won out, situated as it is near I-80 and with residents who are so attuned to their heritage that they constructed an authentic Danish windmill in the center of town.

"Here at the museum, we get somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 visitors a year," Brother Burns said. "We're working to increase that. We're a fairly young institution with a large geographic area to cover. Obviously, we're a not-for-profit organization, some days being more not-for-profit than others. We're trying to get the word out quickly. There are an awful lot of Danish-American organizations out there that we're trying to tap into."

That is one regard in which his background as a Latter-day Saint has been beneficial. Though he does not profess to know how many Church members today have Danish heritage, he is convinced it is substantial. "There's at least a perception, particularly in the Danish-Lutheran Church, that half the Danish descendants in America are Mormons," he said.

Danish Immigrant Museum in its rural setting of Elkhorn, Iowa.
Danish Immigrant Museum in its rural setting of Elkhorn, Iowa. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In fact, one of the exhibits in the museum highlights the 10 areas of the country with the largest Danish-American populations according to the 1990 census. Salt Lake City is in third position, just behind Los Angeles and just ahead of Minneapolis. Provo, Utah, is in the eighth. Topping the list is the Omaha, Neb.-Council Bluffs, Iowa area, which has a prominent place in Church history. In fact, many of the Danish descendants in that area of historic Winter Quarters and Kanesville have ancestors who "didn't make it to Utah and back-trailed," Brother Burns observed.

It perhaps is not surprising that a museum directed by a member of the Church would have a thriving Family History and Genealogy Center as part of its facilities. But the center owes much of its success to the diligence of people such as Norma Nelson, a member of the board of directors and a 73-year resident of Elkhorn who taught school here for 30 years. She and others have helped link many families in Denmark and the United States with each other.

Right now, the museum is highlighting the Danish-Mormon experience in America in an exhibit that will last through Oct. 28. A handcart replica, constructed by the Future Farmers of America in Griswold, Iowa, for the 1996 Mormon Trail sesquicentennial, is featured in front of the museum. Curator Barbara Lund-Jones said the exhibit features several sections, including the search for Zion, dealing with "the power of that concept and the idea of gathering, explaining why the people would come across a sea and a continent to settle."

"We're very fortunate that [Mormon immigrant and artist] C.C.A. Christensen was Danish, because it allows us through his images to unfold much of the exhibit in a fully Danish way," she said.

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