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Cheil and Korean Museum Spotlight 'Invisible People'

Exhibit on Refugees Uses 3D Printing, Smartphones to Draw Attention to their Stories

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Cheil used 3D printing to create replicas of refugees for a Korean museum show.
Cheil used 3D printing to create replicas of refugees for a Korean museum show. Credit: Cheil

Visitors to the Seoul Museum of Art have to search for its latest exhibit – the works are hidden in the washroom, the gift shop and even next to the cheesecake in the museum café.

They're easy to overlook, and that's the point, since the exhibit is about refugees – society's "Invisible People," as the show is called. Cheil Worldwide, which partnered with the U.N.'s refugee agency for the exhibit, used 3D printing technology to mold figurines modeled on refugees, then hid them and sent museum-goers on a search for them.

When visitors spot the statuettes, they can scan a QR or NFC code with their smartphone, giving them access to a video of the refugee telling their story. Visitors can also send messages of encouragement to the people featured.

Five of the 30 people portrayed in the show defected from North Korea and gained South Korean citizenship. Coming from a country where hunger is an everyday problem and where dissidents risk forced labor in prison camps or worse, defectors often struggle to find their place in the forward-looking land of Samsung and K-pop. As South Korea has grown more prosperous, asylum-seekers from faraway nations have begun flowing in.

Other refugees featured in the show fled Mali, Congo, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast and South Sudan. Some were interviewed in Seoul, others in Africa. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, helped Cheil employees meet refugees in Niger.

One inspiration for the goodwill project was a refugee from Ivory Coast who worked in a restaurant next to Cheil's headquarters, art director Seokjin Shin said. The woman, Zirignon Philomene Aby, lost her job and is still owed months of pay. She features in the show.

After recording interviews with the refugees, Cheil staffers used 3D scanning and printing technology to produce small figurines representing them.

"Although 3D printing is on one hand a very cool and new technology, Korean media has been portraying it negatively -- most of the time what we read in the headlines is about copyright infringement or weapons manufacturing," Cheil copywriter Songha Lee said. "We just wanted to use that technology in a positive way."

Cheil's partner, the Seoul Museum of Art, was keen to take on a social issue.

"In contemporary art it's not only about beauty or aesthetics -- we try to engage more with society," said Gahee Park, a curator.

The exhibit opened Feb. 7 and runs through March 2. Some people come specially to see it, while others stumble upon the figurines while looking at the permanent collection or other exhibits.

The refugee videos last up to 6 minutes. All refugees, from Africans to North Koreans, spoke about their desire to be recognized and treated as members of society, Mr. Lee said.

And all spoke of their desire to return home -- except for the North Koreans.

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