By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Nelson Mandela is one of history’s iconic and beloved figures. His actions sparked change in his home country of South Africa and fanned the flame for social justice movements across the globe. Soon, Milwaukeeans will have a chance to learn more about this beloved leader, hero and man.
The Milwaukee Public Museum and America’s Black Holocaust Museum are partnering together to present the “Nelson Mandela: The Official Exhibition.” This marks the exhibition’s debut in the United States, and it will be on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St., starting Friday, April 23 through Sunday, Aug. 1. The exhibition includes unseen film, photos, historical artifacts and personal effects.
The heads of the museum and honorary co-chairs of the Milwaukee Mandela Community Council talked about the background behind this partnership and the significance of this exhibition during a press conference on Tuesday, April 13.
Dr. Ellen Censky, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Public Museum explained that she first heard about the exhibit in 2019. She filed the information away for the future, but when the pandemic hit and the originally scheduled exhibition canceled, she reached out to Round Room Live to see if the exhibition was still available.
“I thought that this exhibit could be a point for a discussion of change and healing in this community,” Censky said as she reflected on the segregation that continues to exist in Milwaukee.
As the events in 2020 continued to unfold, Censky knew that the Milwaukee Public Museum could not present the exhibition of Mandela on its own.
“As a predominantly white institution, it seemed disingenuous for MPM to present this exhibit without meaningful partnership with the African American community,” she said. “It would not have had the impact that Mandela’s family and friends intended when they partnered to put it together. The first person I thought of, when I thought of a partner was Dr. Bert of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.”
For his part, Dr. Robert “Bert” Davis, president and CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, thought the partnership with the Milwaukee Public Museum would be a wonderful endeavor.
“It is not just a project,” Davis said. “We’re looking at this as a partnership. A cooperative relationship, not only between our two institutions but between our institutions and this entire community.”
Davis praised the Milwaukee Public Museum with recognizing it needed community partners. It was smart of them, he said.
“I believe that this exhibit has the power and the potential to bring separate and disparate communities together,” Davis said. “And bring our different communities together, under the spirit, within the spirit and because of the spirit of Nelson Mandela, who I believe is one of the most remarkable human beings to ever live on our planet.”
The museums didn’t do the work alone. Together they formed the Milwaukee Mandela Community Council, which featured leaders and community members in Milwaukee. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the late Hank Aaron along with his wife Billye Aaron served as honorary co-chairs.
This is a powerful exhibit, Barnes said, it shares stories of a not-so-distant past and provides a roadmap for the future. Barnes also highlighted the significance of this exhibit for Milwaukee.
“It puts a spotlight on Milwaukee,” he said. “And it puts a spotlight on the state while shining a light on an individual, who spent his entire life fighting for justice and equity for all.”
Barnes said he hopes people will learn from Mandela’s resilience and his courage.
“I personally have no doubt that this exhibit will inspire us to see how we can all do the hard work that it takes to make a difference to move us all forward in hopes of a more equitable, more fair and more just united state of Wisconsin,” he said.
Since Billye Aaron was unable to make the event, Cecelia Gore, the executive director of the Brewers Community Foundation, spoke on the Aaron’s behalf. The Aaron’s spent much of their lives seeking social justice, Gore said. They each had successful careers and still they experienced racism, bur Mandela’s sacrifice, courage and victory brought hope, she noted.
“My hope is that learning about President Mandela’s story will empower people to move forward, not in fear but imagining the possibility of a more peaceful world,” Gore said.
When people leave the exhibition, they are invited to take part in the My Mandela Pledge challenge. On Nelson Mandela International Day, which takes place on his birthday, July 18, people are encouraged to volunteer for 67 minutes. The day was started by the United Nations and the museums are carrying on the tradition.
Visitors can sign the pledge at the end of this exhibition.
“We want the experiences of Nelson Mandela’s life and the experiences of the exhibit to live far beyond what we normally would consider just the beginning and the end of a museum experience,” Davis said. “The whole purpose of a museum is to supply these vignettes of history and cultural experiences and contributions of individuals to our culture.”