Over one million Swedes immigrated to America during the 19th and 20th centuries, escaping conscription, famine, and poverty. Washington, Connecticut became one of their new homes, where many found employment as laborers and servants on local farms and estates owned by wealthy New Yorkers. Swedes made up 22% of Washington’s population in 1910, and many of their descendants still reside in town today.
In conjunction with commemorating the 125th anniversary of Washington’s Swedish Salem Covenant Church, the Gunn Museum opened the exhibit Coming to America: Washington’s Swedish Immigrants. This exhibit was designed to increase public awareness of the Swedish population, their contribution to the cultural landscape of the town, and features original research on Washington’s Swedish immigrants.
The Gunn Museum had no information and few artifacts in its collection related to the minority immigrant population before this project started. This presented a unique opportunity for public outreach and collaboration, bringing the community together to research, collect, and share the previously untold stories of Washington’s Swedes at the Gunn Museum. A team of over 85 volunteers and contributors conducted in-depth original historical research in parish records, U.S. Census records, land records, and oral history interviews with 17 Swedish immigrant descendants.
Designed to engage the senses of visitors, Coming to America featured traditional Swedish music, vibrant colors, photo enlargements, graphic designs, murals, and vignettes. Additionally, 19 diverse programs allowed visitors of all ages to learn about Swedish culture through engaging programs that ranged from a walking tour of Washington’s Swedish neighborhood, to a three part lecture series on the history of Sweden, to a Swedish music performance, to a nighttime Swedish immigrant themed cemetery tour, to a St. Lucia’s Day Swedish Christmas pageant.
This exhibit was unique in that 95% of everything on display was borrowed from the descendants of Washington’s Swedish immigrants. Coming to America and its programs shared the little-known story of Swedish immigration to the small New England town and helped the Gunn Museum strengthen its position as an organization that is responsive to the needs and interests of its community. Visitors from across the country were able to reconnect with the hometown of their families, learn about their family histories, and share their Swedish culture and traditions with the Washington community.