It can be difficult to describe a museum’s role in society. We teach about the past—but look to the future. We tell the stories of extraordinary individuals—but use them to understand all humanity. And we provide a calm space—but dare visitors to question their beliefs. No matter our individual missions, museums share these challenges and one overarching goal: to provide an experience that builds a greater feeling of empathy, an experience that allows one to sense the invisible ties binding all people both past and present.
Where the Children Sleep by Swedish photographer Magnus Wennman is an immensely powerful experience. The opening of this exhibition at the American Swedish Historical Museum marks the sixth year of the war in Syria which has claimed nearly 500,000 lives, left 14 million wounded or displaced, and forced nearly five million refugees to flee the country. Wennman’s 22 photographs and captions by journalist Carina Bergfeldt document this tragedy by capturing what the simple act of bedtime brings for the most vulnerable refugees—children. While traveling through seven countries in the Middle East and Europe in 2015, Wennman met refugee children who showed him where they lay their heads at night. The resulting exhibition attaches faces, names, and stories to the millions of refugee children who spend their nights in camps, fields, outside closed borders, and on the side of the road.
Although the children have escaped war, each photograph is a heartbreaking testament to the ongoing challenges faced by refugees as they seek new homes. Viewed as a whole, Wennman’s photographs have the combined power to show that the Syrian Civil War is a war against humanity’s most vulnerable elements.
Magnus Wennman, two-time winner of the World Press Photo Award, notes, “I came up with this idea that I wanted to document where the refugee children sleep. No matter how hard this conflict may be to understand, it’s not hard to understand that children need a safe place to sleep.” In collaboration with Fotografiska (The Museum of Photography in Stockholm), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) brought Where the Children Sleep to audiences in the United States to raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees.
“Children are our future. No one can see these images of children of war sleeping peacefully after being forced to flee their homes without being deeply moved,” said Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR representative for the United States and the Caribbean. “They are our children.”
The American Swedish Historical Museum will also host two smaller exhibits that build on themes within Where the Children Sleep.
One, Portraits of Migration: Sweden Beyond the Headlines, is a series of 20 images that explore the stories of those who have found asylum in Sweden. By providing personal stories for examining Sweden’s response to the refugee crisis, this exhibit helps us to understand the impacts of migration and acculturation.
Although this exhibit focuses on today’s refugee crisis, it also incorporates historical patterns of migration to and from Sweden. Portraits of Migration: Sweden Beyond the Headlines will be installed along the balcony of the ASHM’s Grand Hall.
The American Swedish Historical Museum will also host a ‘better shelter’. Designed by an enterprise partnering with the IKEA Foundation and the UNHCR, these refugee shelters offer displaced persons a secure, adaptable, and dignified place to live. Four people can build a ‘better shelter’ in about four hours and, due to their lightweight materials, these shelters can be shipped worldwide. While unable to replace homes lost to war, these shelters provide refugees with amenities that improve day-to-day life such as solar-powered lamps and ventilation. The American Swedish Historical Museum’s ‘better shelter’ and accompanying text panels will be installed on the Museum’s lawn.
The American Swedish Historical Museum will host Where the Children Sleep, Portraits of Migration: Sweden Beyond the Headlines, and a ‘better shelter’ between October 21st, 2017 and March 4th, 2018. The opening of these exhibits will be accompanied by our ‘How Can I Help?’ Fair, where visitors can be connected with both regional and global efforts to help migrants and refugees.