'Mandela: Struggle for Freedom'

Exhibit on anti-apartheid hero set to open at Illinois Holocaust Museum  

NelsonMandela image
Photo credit: Associated Press

A new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center exhibit is bringing the story of South Africa's battle against apartheid to life.  Mandela: Struggle for Freedom  is an interactive, immersive experience putting museumgoers in the center of the action. Due to the pandemic, the exhibit-running Feb. 20 to Sept. 6-is designed to be accessible both in person and virtually. 

Developed with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the exhibit spotlights artifacts, oral histories, videos, art, and activities central to the global battle against apartheid. "The exhibition is about the struggle, featuring one of its main leaders, Nelson Mandela," said Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum. 

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in South Africa; after training as a lawyer, he became a leader in the anti-apartheid African National Congress. Imprisoned on remote and forbidding Robben Island for 18 years, Mandela became a powerful symbol of revolution in South Africa and helped bring about political change. In 1994, he was elected president in the first democratic elections in South Africa's history. Museum visitors here relive some of Mandela's and other activists' most dramatic moments. 

One is Mandela's first secret television interview from 1961. Barred by South Africa's government from speaking with journalists, Mandela was interviewed at 2 a.m. in a sympathetic activist's home-now, museumgoers enter a similar apartment setting to watch that crucial interview footage. A hands-on area also gives visitors the chance to experiment with some of the same secret modes of communication that anti-apartheid activists used, including ciphers, peepholes, and coded telephone messages. 

Another powerful section of the exhibit provides testimony from the Soweto Uprising. In June 1976, thousands of school children in Soweto township protested racist apartheid policies in schools-the demonstrations soon swelled to 20,000 children, who faced down police violence and police brutality with only flimsy garbage can lids to use as shield. Exhibit attendees can now hear accounts of the uprising while facing a recreated military tank and holding actual garbage can lids themselves, making the uprising feel immediate and real. 

Mandela's tiny 8 by 7-foot prison cell is also recreated: The stark walls become a window onto another time, filled with videos and testimonies of prisoners. Museumgoers view an actual pick and shovel used in forced labor in the prison, see prisoners' censored letters, learn about the meager rations given to inmates, and hear about a little-known escape plot. Other prison artifacts include an actual letter Mandela wrote from jail, a notebook he kept there, and messages he sent to the outside world. 

The exhibit comprises five zones: Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization, and Freedom. Each section stresses a different color of the South African flag that was adopted in 1994 with the first fully democratic elections, and which symbolizes unity.  

Visitors first pass through somber black and white areas illustrating about apartheid's brutality and emerge into the beautiful palette of vibrant colors and freedom. An actual ballot box from South Africa's 1994 election, when Mandela was elected president, helps convey the sense of joy and freedom following the demise of the apartheid regime. 

"Nelson Mandela's impact and voice reached people around the world, and that voice still resonates today," notes Museum CEO Susan Abrams. 

For those of us who are old enough to remember the fight against Apartheid South Africa, and for those who are learning about this period for the first time, 

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom  helps us experience this struggle as our own. 

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom  at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center runs Feb. 20 - Sept. 12, 2021. In person and virtual tours are available. For more information, visit ilholocaustmuseum.org. 


Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.



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