Mandela: Struggle for Freedom – Powerful and Inspiring

"Mandela: Struggle for Freedom" at the Illinois Holocaust Musem
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Mandela: Struggle for Freedom opened at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on February 20, 2021 as an in-person exhibition and will continue through September 12, 2021 and On-site and virtual tours are available.  A very special day takes place during this time.  While the exhibition is in-person there will be a special Online tour on July 18, 2021 | 2:00pm CST. This is Mandela Day which is an annual international day in honor of Nelson Mandela, celebrated each year on 18 July, Mandela’s birthday. The day was officially declared by the United Nations in November 2009, with the first UN Mandela Day held on 18 July 2010. This will be a wonderful opportunity for people everywhere to explore this wonderful exhibition.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Photo: Courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom was developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Winnipeg, Canada) in partnership with the Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg, South Africa). Tour management services provided by Lord Cultural Resources.

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom traces the history of the fight against apartheid in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela as one of its central figures. With immersive environments, Mandela promotes human rights with a clear message: all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

I was very impressed with the exhibition, while some parts were memorable.  I was first impressed by the first interview of Mandela on British television when he was quite young.  He spoke eloquently but he looked so different than the image the I am accustomed to seeing.  In this interview he spoke of possible actions that might happen long before these actions were realized.

Nelson Mandela was clearly one of the most famous human rights defenders of the 20th-century.  He was the face of a movement against racial injustice.  It is hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that Mandela was 71 when he walked out of prison and yet he had the strength and the will that inspired people around the globe to mobilize for human rights and contributed to a worldwide crusade demanding racial equality. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, Mandela devoted his life to fighting apartheid and creating a more just society. The power of one man’s courage that changed the world comes to light in this exhibition.

Walk into the prison replica

Among its many dramatic features and original artifacts, the exhibition replicates the eight-foot by seven-foot cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail before emerging at age 71 to continue negotiating democratic change with his former enemies. Visitors entering the cell will find themselves in a multimedia theatre, with projections telling stories of repression and resilience.

About Winnie Mandela

“The exhibition is divided into five zones: apartheid, defiance, repression, mobilization, and, ultimately, freedom. Themes explored in the exhibition including the role of nonviolent protest, the power of youth, and the indignities of incarceration still resonate today, making this exhibition both timely and compelling,” explained Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Arielle Weininger.

See the passports that needed to be shown everywhere

“Nelson Mandela’s impact and voice reached people around the world, and that voice still resonates today,” says Museum CEO Susan Abrams. “As we continue to see racism, antisemitism, and hatred on the rise, this exhibition provides visitors with the chance to use Mandela’s lifelong fight for justice as a source of inspiration.”

Watch this video:

About the treatment of women

Other exhibition highlights are noted below.

Exhibit Details

  • Five zones – Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization, and Freedom – house interactive exhibits, artifacts and objects, oral histories, videos, and art. Each zone references a different color of the South African flag, adopted with the first democratic elections of 1994 to symbolize unity.
  • Visitors start with the stark black-and-white of apartheid oppression and end in the full living colors of freedom.
“Wall of Laws”
  • An imposing “wall of laws” stretching five meters high is covered with apartheid signs and laws based solely on skin color. Under South Africa’s former apartheid system, these laws dictated how people lived their lives, including where they could go and what they could do. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation and labor exploitation, imposing control on all aspects of life – as evidenced by the number and diversity of laws. A replica bench at the exhibition entrance sets the tone by inviting “Europeans only” to sit.
  • The scene of young Mandela’s famous first TV interview in 1961 in a clandestine apartment location is recreated in front of the actual film footage (the Widlake interview). At this time, freedom fighters are moving underground. A “covert” area in this gallery zone features hidden objects, peekholes, and coded phone messages.
  • A tiny prison cell comes alive with silhouettes of Mandela moving about in his daily routine, then relays a story of continued resistance in the face of repression. Visitors are exposed to the dehumanizing conditions of Robben Island, the tools of hard labor, the censored letters, the meagre contents of the cell, and a little-known plot to escape.
  • Original artifacts include a battered ballot box used in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Mandela became president; a letter in Mandela’s own hand, sent from prison to a leader of anti-apartheid mobilization; a notepad Mandela used during negotiations for democracy; and a message Mandela wrote in the Canadian Senate during a visit shortly after his release from prison in 1990.
  • In-gallery activities include a virtual poster-making station on a digital touchscreen table, with the ability to project your poster among others displayed in the exhibit (this can also be done online). Poster-making was a major part of the South African community resistance. People with few resources would gather to make inspiring posters that called people to action and solidarity in the struggle. Hundreds of examples still exist.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Nelson Mandela, 1964

Mandela interview

Photos: B. Keer unless otherwise noted.

An exciting exhibition will be opening soon. Check here to learn more about the Little-Known Story of Resilience and Survival During the Holocaust which is coming to Illinois Holocaust Museum Shanghai: Safe Haven During the Holocaust will run from July 15, 2021 –September 5, 2021.

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