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This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a troubled world, it’s a birthday we shouldn’t ignore.
Story: Jocelyn Pride
Back in the 1940s the creation of a blueprint for human rights was no small thing. Since its adoption by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become the most translated document in the world. It affirms the undeniable rights of every person on the planet regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political persuasion, social standing, or any other status.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped draft the landmark declaration, put it this way: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” The former First Lady’s words are as profound and relevant now as the day they were spoken.
Inside Winnipeg's Canadian Museum for Human Rights
As the declaration’s 70th birthday looms on Human Rights Day, 10 December, the milestone is being marked in many ways around the world. From the Human Rights Film Tour travelling to 45 countries (including Australia), to the launch of a commemorative UN postage stamp, to a concert in Japan with famed musicians playing precious Stradivarius violins. In Paris on 10 December, at the Palais de Chaillot – where the declaration was adopted – the city’s mayor will launch a campaign to reflect on the past and look to the future. And the following day in New York, an actor playing Eleanor Roosevelt will be the special guest at a commemorative address at the United Nations headquarters.
Journey to light
While such commemorations may be fleeting, elsewhere around the globe the spirit of the Declaration of Human Rights is honoured on a permanent basis. One place that makes every day Human Rights Day is Winnipeg. Known as the “cultural cradle of Canada”, the capital of Manitoba province is home to one of the most striking and significant museums in the world – the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
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Sense of place is at the forefront of this masterpiece designed by New Mexican architect Antoine Predock. Opened in 2014, it was built over five years at a cost of more than $370 million. As dramatic as it looks on the exterior, rising from the prairie grasses like a glass castle, it’s the interior that’s a heart stealer.
“Everything good starts from the earth,” says guide Julie White, who leads the museum’s Mikinak-Keya Spirit Tour, based on knowledge from First Nation elders. “The museum takes us on a journey from dark to light.” With the lower level representing the darkness of the womb of Mother Earth, a series of alabaster ramps ribboning through the building gradually ascend to 10 interactive galleries, where the struggle for equality is portrayed through the power of storytelling. “Predock’s concept is that this isn’t a place full of objects,” Julie says. “It’s a museum of ideas.”
As emotionally charged as the experience is, it’s also uplifting. “Diversity brings strength – a forest is full of different types of trees, yet each co-exists,” says Julie, as we stand atop the aptly named Tower of Hope with sunlight streaming through 360 glass panels. “From history’s darkest moments comes the light of the future.”
In your hands
In Melbourne, an equally life-affirming museum display echoes the sentiment of the human rights declaration, and the universal struggle for equality. Coinciding with what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, Melbourne Museum’s Mandela My Life exhibition tells the story of a man who sacrificed so much for the betterment of humanity.
Images: Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela.
While researching for the exhibition, co-curator Kimberley Moulton drew ideas from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. “I was inspired by the way they worked with the First Nations communities and spoke about traumas in history around human rights,” she says.
Kimberley and her colleagues also worked closely with the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. “We sat with people who knew Mandela and listened to their stories,” she says. “We know him as a world leader and a humanitarian, but we wanted to get a feel for who Mandela was as a man.”
Hearing Mandela’s voice at poignant points of the exhibition adds power to the experience, as does seeing excerpts from the many letters he wrote from prison. And then there’s those colourful shirts that highlight Mandela’s playful side.
The last display in the exhibition is a stunning series of 16 paintings by South African artist John Meyer, depicting Mandela’s life. It’s an invitation to reflect on an extraordinary man and be filled with hope for the future.