Mutter Museum opens new exhibit bringing awareness, empathy to those unhoused

ByNydia Han and Heather Grubola WPVI logo
Wednesday, January 17, 2024
Mutter Museum opens exhibit bringing awareness, empathy to unhoused
The very unique collection features photographs full of emotion and actual signs that people used to ask for help.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A new exhibit hopes to bring empathy to those who are unhoused here in Philadelphia and around the world.

The very unique collection features photographs full of emotion and actual signs that people used to ask for help. Both artists have deeply personal connections to the plight of homelessness that they hope comes through in their work.

"Her name is Banni. She was just two years old when I photographed her," said Leah den Bok, who is a photographer and author.

den Bok began taking pictures when she was 15 years old and her images are haunting, looking into the souls of her subjects.

"These would be stories that I've heard from the past several years," she said.

Her work is being shown as part of an exhibition called "Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health," now open to the public at the Mutter Museum in Center City. She says her mother has been her inspiration.

"My mother was homeless as a child. She was found wandering the streets of Calcutta, India," said den Bok.

den Bok who lives in Canada, says her mother was three years old when she was taken to an orphanage run by Mother Theresa.

"There she was raised by Mother Theresa until she was five years old," she said.

The goal of the 23-year-old and the entire exhibition is to humanize the homeless.

"When we interviewed folks living on the street, they were really clear about feeling invisible and not even having people look them in the eye and acknowledge their existence. And I think the big part of this work was to really maybe inspire folks to think differently about those subtle interactions that can really mean a lot," said Dr. Rosie Frasso, Professor of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University.

The exhibit has two parts, den Bok's incredible black and white imagery, to words that are just as gripping.

"I wonder if they would sell me their signs," said artist and professor Willie Baronet.

And they did. For over three decades, Baronet has collected hundreds of signs from the unhoused. He says these simple messages have a rippling impact on those who see them.

"I have had so many people approach me and after just seeing signs and start weeping and say some version of 'I'm never going to look at people on the street the same way again'."

One of those people is 47-year-old Eddie Dunn of Yeadon, Delaware County. Baronet bought his sign in 2014.

"I encountered Willie when I was 38 at the corner of 10th and Market. I was experiencing homelessness as a result of my drug addiction," he recalled.

Dunn has since turned his life around and now helps by educating others. He claps back at critics who might call an exhibit like this exploitive.

"It's easy when you encounter homeless people to see them as, you know, irritable or an eyesore. To create a platform where they are seen in a different light I wouldn't consider that exploitive at all," said Dunn.

"Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health" runs now through August 5th.

For more information, visit