June 26, 2009

Swedish American Museum - Chicago, IL

I've done it again! I'm traveling too much and too fast for the blog to keep up! I'm currently in Katy, Texas with my friend Anna visiting her family, but still have so much more to tell about our time in Chicago. So I'll eventually get to our current adventures. In the mean time, I'll tell you a little more about our visit to the Windy City. (Fun fact: The windy city nickname has nothing to do with the weather, it is actually a reference to the blowhard politicians.)

When I lived in the Andersonville neighborhood, I used to walk by the Swedish American Museum several times a day but I never stopped to visit it. I always planned to eventually go inside, but after so many times I just kept walking past and sort of forgot it was there. Like the Swedish flag painted on the water tower or any number of roadside attractions, you get so used to seeing them everyday you just seem to stop seeing them. But on this visit, I was a tourist and after a lovely meal at Ann Sather, Anna and I decided to finally see the museum.

As we stepped out of the heat and into the cool museum, we were promptly shaken down by a little old lady with a think Swedish accent. She reminded us they requested donations. We asked if we could use a debit card since neither of us had any cash handy, but in a very stern yet grandmotherly voice she reminded us that the museum requested "donations." So our adventure began after we went to the ATM across the street and gave the little only lady our "donations."

The first floor features the special exhibit "Roundtrip: New York-Gotland" by Peter Åström, a Swedish-born artist who has been living in New York since the mid 1970s. According to the museum website, the exhibit "depicts his Swedish and American locations and lifestyles in the bustling city to the natural countryside." Truthfully, we didn't get it. I thought the paintings looked like they were done by a drunk five-year-old. Anna couldn't figure out why a crude drawing of a duck cost four figures. So we quickly moved on to the second floor, which was about Swedish immigration to Chicago and the prominent Swedes who helped to make the city, the country and the world great.

The exhibit begins by telling the story of Swedish immigration. People certainly didn't leave their homes to cross an ocean - they were driven there by hardship, crop failures and promises of a better life or at least a more fruitful struggle. The displays continue and follow the immigrants journey across the sea, the place they craved for themselves in American society, the traditions and heritage they maintained despite their diaspora and the amazing Swedes who changed Chicago, the country and the world. It would be impossible for me to tell every story I leaned in my visit or even convey even the smallest amount of knowledge I gained. There was simply too much. Instead I will offer the one story that moved me the most and encourage you to pay a visit to the museum yourself, should you ever get a chance.

The most fascinating exhibit was the room dedicated to the life of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian and diplomat who worked from Hungary to save thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. He was asked to save as many lives as possible. In return, he was granted generous liberty and freedom with how he went about accomplishing his mission - essentially given license to do whatever it took such as bribing an official - to save lives. He issued "protective passports" to Jews in the country, though they were not legal the documents looked official and saved many from being sent to death camps. He rented 32 buildings, claiming they were covered by diplomatic immunity, and hid almost 10,000 people within them. Once, he even saved dozens of Jews already on a train headed for Auschwitz by handing out the protective passports while armed Nazis looked on, dumbfounded by his determination and bravado.

Though Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of lives, he was detained by the Soviet Union and never seen again. It is unclear when he actually died. The exhibit in the Swedish American Museum does not mention the controversy regarding his death year, whether it was in 1945 or in a Russian prison in 1957, only his great works. I was amazed reading the plaques in his honor and the numerous stories of his heroic acheivements. If you ever have an opportunity to visit the museum, I cannot encourage you enough to stop in this room and take your time examining all you can about this extraordinary Swedish man.

After a somber moment of reflection, Anna and I took the elevator up to the third floor to look at the children's museum. We considered making a visit but realized when we saw it that despite our child-like hearts, we were definitely too old to play there. Instead, we finished off our tour with a visit to the gift shop so we could buy our own Swedish toys.

It was a wonderful visit to a wonderful museum. My only regret is that I never went sooner, perhaps when I was living only a few steps away and might have been able to make more visits.


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