Exhibit at American Swedish Historical Museum reveals gifts sent 80 years ago

The new exhibit, “From the Heart, Made by Hand: Treasures from the Women of Sweden,” will run through March.

Curator Trevor Brandt organized a new exhibit at the American Swedish Historical Museum, “From the Heart, Made by Hand: Treasures from the Women of Sweden,” which reveals a collection of textiles gifts sent to the museum 80 years ago. (GRACE MAIORANO/ South Philly Review)

Eighty years ago, women from across Sweden sent hand-woven offerings to South Philadelphia.

As a contribution to the then-newly opened American Swedish Historical Museum, the Nordic natives assembled a collection of textiles — each entwined with shades, patterns and narratives illustrative of the 21 provinces that compose the European country.

But, since their arrival in 1938, the public, and even most of the museum’s staff, were not aware of these vibrant gifts, as the artifacts have been sitting unseen amid the establishment’s nearly 5,000-piece collection .

However, the museum’s new curator recently stumbled upon the archives, brushing dust off the artistry and drawing a story from the storage, leading to the museum’s new exhibit, “From the Heart, Made by Hand: Treasures from the Women of Sweden.”

“It’s just about the first time everything’s been together since the ‘40s,” said curator Trevor Brandt. “So, it’s been exciting to pull it all together and to show them off in a way they would have probably just about originally been displayed.”

While the museum has hosted close to 20 exhibits in the past decade, this showcase, which will be open through March 10, is the first temporary special display strictly dedicated to these kind of textiles.

Audiences are greeted in the gallery with a phrase written on a wall, “The art of making beautiful, useful things for the home by the hand,” a translation of the Swedish word hemslöjd.

The phrase literally and figuratively gives way to the rest of the showcase — an emulation of the 20th-century Scandinavian country depicted through a compendium of craft and geography.

“There’s a strong tradition of craft passed down in Sweden — even ’til today, I think much more so than we have maintained culturally in the United States,” said Caroline Rossy, communications manager of the museum.

With a loom and spinning wheel serving as the epicenter, several painted maps of Sweden encircle this display — each one highlighting a different province of the nation in a bold yellow hue. Beneath each map hangs an intricate arrangement of fabrics from their respective regions.

In the southern regions where tapestries are especially prevalent, museum-goers will notice precise motifs, yet, as they move toward the northern areas, they will notice less textile-based gifts and more Nomadic objects like birch-woven baskets, as a few other gifts were uncovered aside from fabrics.

“It’s really interesting, because you can see, based on these here, that each (gift) really speaks to the individuality of the different Swedish regions, because they’re different colors, different techniques, different styles,” Brandt said. “But, more importantly, and especially more important for (the organizer), the textiles themselves are sort of a feminist statement for Swedish female craftswomen.”

That original organizer of the 75-piece collection was Hanna Rydh, a Swedish archaeologist and politician during the early to mid-20th century who advocated for the civil rights of women on a global scale, serving as chairperson of the Fredrika Bremer Association from 1937 to 1949, a member of parliament from 1943 to 1944 and president of the International Women’s Alliance from 1946 to 1952.

Rydh, who, according to the exhibit’s text, was actually Sweden’s first female archaeologist, fused her passions of human activity, craft and women empowerment, leading to her organization of the museum’s gifts.

Flashing forward eight decades, the gifts’ original feminist undertones are coming to light on a contemporary level.

GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review

“I think just showing women’s impact in craft and handiwork and how that’s valuable and something to be treasured in years as they go by…,” Rossy said. “(Rydh) was very much at the forefront of saying women ought to be able to do whatever men do, and there’s really no question about it. So, I think her story is really kind of pertinent today.”

Brandt says, throughout Swedish history, textiles haven’t always been embroidered with a woman’s name, making it difficult to associate an individual craftswoman with a textile. However, several of these textiles do in fact have a craftswoman associated with them, allowing personalities to seep through the cloths.

“I think it’s important to look at this exhibit and to be able to see the importance of looking at an object and trying to find the craftsperson in the object,” Brandt said “Especially now in the age of machine-manufactured things, there’s no craftsperson really behind the object, but the role of the different craft organizations in Sweden have been to heighten the presence of the craftsperson, and in many cases, craftswomen in the textiles and in these different artifacts.”

Info: To find out more about the exhibit, visit www.americanswedish.org/exhibitions/heart-made-hand-treasures-women-sweden