Nelson Mandela exhibit coming to National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is building a world premiere exhibit chronicling the life of Nelson Mandela.

Opening March 24, Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu is being created in partnership with Matthew Willman, a South African photographer commissioned by the The Nelson Mandela Foundation during the last 10 years of Mandela's life. The exhibit has the approval of the foundation, a rarity outside of South Africa, and is being designed by Freedom Center staff to travel to other museums after August, when it closes in Cincinnati.

“This exhibition at the NURFC is the first in the USA to take such a bold step in harnessing not only (Mandela's) life story, but more importantly, the lessons and responsibilities Mandela embodied that are relevant and in such great need for us as citizens to recognize and embody today,” Willman said in an email interview.

Mandela was the anti-apartheid revolutionary, philanthropist and politician who served as South African president from 1994 to 1999 after being imprisoned for more than 25 years. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

“Mandela is an example of how one man's journey to transform himself amidst great challenges changed the world around him,” Tillman said. “We are giving audiences an opportunity to witness the power of forgiveness, tolerance, leadership and hope.”

A poster advertising the exhibit

Willman's relationship with the Freedom Center began in 2014 when the organization honored Mandela posthumously with the International Freedom Conductors Award for his work ending apartheid. The ceremony used some of Willman's photos, and he and Freedom Center staff began talking about building the exhibit that will become a reality this spring.

John Pepper, retired CEO of Procter & Gamble and an honorary co-chairman of the Freedom Center's Board of Directors, traveled to South Africa, meeting with Willman and visiting many of the sites important to Mandela's life. The visit solidified the Freedom Center's relationship with the Mandela Foundation, and also made clear to Pepper how relevant Mandela's story was to modern politics and issues.

“What's most remarkable is how he was able to forgive and be able to bring people together after being treated that way,” Pepper said. “That's what we need today in this tornado of disagreements, and not just disagreements but bad feelings for each other. We need that ability to forgive and that hope, that hope that we can pull ourselves up and do what's right.”

“Ubuntu,” referred to in the exhibit's title, is a South African term for humanity, the idea that all people share a universal bond. Mandela used the philosophy as he worked to unite his country, a nation divided by race for so long. Using Willman's photographs as a starting point, the exhibit will take visitors through Mandela's life and South Africa's journey toward racial equality.

Visitors will travel through Mvezo Village, where the former South African president was born, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned.

They will see artifacts from Mandela's life, on loan from the Nelson Family Foundation. They will see the courtroom where Mandela was sentenced. They will see rocks from a quarry where Mandela made a stirring speech for unity, each stone measured, weighed and cataloged in order to clear international customs. They will walk through a stark white space, a visual representation of apartheid and white oppression, while their ears are assaulted by the sounds of helicopters flying low and gunshots ringing out.

“We chose to represent (apartheid) that way, because what you imagine is always worse than what you see,” Creative Director Jesse Kramer said.

A rendering of the exhibit

As they built the 3,000-square-foot exhibit, Kramer and the team tried to create places for personal experiences, to give people opportunities to connect Mandela's life with their own. The hope is to spark conversations and thought about social justice, at home and throughout the world. 

The exhibit cost about $150,000, not including staff time and donations from Home Depot, and was built to be packed up, shipped off and set up in other museums. Freedom Center staff aren't sure yet where the exhibit will travel first.

But Pepper said his goal is to send Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu through every major city in the U.S. He also would like to digitize parts of the exhibit so it can be presented in schools.

“What I want is that this man's life not be forgotten, but be brought to life in a way that's meaningful, to be a guide to us,” Pepper said.

John and Francie Pepper, Macy's and ArtsWave are sponsors of the exhibit, which will run through Aug. 20. Admission to the special exhibit is $5.

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