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 Image of the Month

October 2016

A Universal Mosaic for a Universal Declaration:  Visualizing the Genealogy of Human Rights
By Dr. Roland Burke, Lecturer, La Trobe University



Curated by UNESCO, and first opened in late 1949, the Human Rights Exhibition was the organization’s flagship project to promote the vision of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Travelling across the world, from Paris, to Tokyo, to the Western sectors of Berlin, to Manila, and to Port-au-Prince, the Exhibition was perhaps the single most ambitious attempt to use visual means to communicate the meaning of universal human rights.  Constructed with a vast array of documents and images assembled from across the world, UNESCO’s display sought to tessellate the textual and visual traditions of myriad national histories, religions, and philosophies into a coherent mosaic of the halting, but inevitable, evolution of human rights.  Beyond its assiduous attempt at cross-cultural inclusivity, the Exhibition was extensible and adjustable – allowing for differing emphases as it wandered the globe, notably the emphasis on the emancipation of slaves in Haiti.  It had scope for highly local accretions and additions to augment national connections to the universal principles embedded within its core collection of plates and captions.

Shown in the video is a selection of images from the transportable kit, which lowered the organizational threshold, and institutional scale, required for holding the exhibition.  Aided by the well-organized, and comparatively easy to assemble UNESCO package, the human rights message could reach down to the school hall, church parish, or local library – precisely the “small spaces, close to home” that Eleanor Roosevelt had once identified as critical to success.  Each of the required plates are presented in order, with numeric identification numbers.  These indexed to pages of pre-perforated textual descriptions, each serving as a caption for its corresponding image – a decision which was astute given the obliquity with which many of the plates related to human rights.  A short but effective booklet elaborating the meaning of each article of the Declaration was included for wider context, along with a poster copy of the UDHR, printed in large format, with a high gloss finish.  The footprint of the parcel was substantial, but conformed to Universal Postal Union (UPU) size requirements for shipping, agreed in 1947.  Once at its destination, it could be carried on foot, albeit as a modest encumbrance (the kit was approximately 1 kilogram).  UNESCO had curated a model exhibition in miniature, with everything sufficient for expeditionary education on the history, concepts, and importance of the then novel project of international human rights.

Acclaimed, perhaps unsurprisingly, in UNESCO’s official magazine, UNESCO Courier, the exhibition reflected the orientation of the organization as it operated in the early 1950s.  The plates wove together the accumulated emancipatory capital of myriad civilizations over the course of millennia.  The result was a sense of shared human heritage: a common project of struggle, expressed differently, but ultimately converging to its zenith, the adoption, on 10 December 1948, of the UDHR.  National and civilizational traditions were harnessed not to laud essential difference, but to demonstrate the canopy that covered humanity.  Difference was embraced as an instrument for revealing commonality, an approach which would recede in the 1960s, as UNESCO celebrated a more adamantine diversity and found enthusiasm for essentialist identity curation and conservation.   

While the most tactile and discrete vector for human rights promotion in the early UN, the exhibition kit was devised and circulated at a point when there was an energetic effort to disseminate the human rights message.  Although less visible in the historical record than the elite debates of Geneva, Paris, and Lake Success, the promotional effort was arguably one of the few threads of promise in the 1950s, when much of the early, optimistic inter-governmental initiative had dissipated.  Outside of the fractious space of legal and political negotiation, the UDHR found a more direct interface with the citizenries of the world.  If global agreement on a legally binding covenant was a frightening novelty beyond the grasp of international organization as it stood a decade after the war, innovation elsewhere flourished.  In the newly independent Indonesian republic, copies of the Declaration were dropped from aircraft in the sky (presumably unbundled, to avoid the risk of truly ironic injury).  In Australian schools, students were handed copies of the UDHR at the end of term, perhaps for those not entirely convinced about Article 26 (1), which stipulated “compulsory,” along with “free,” education. Geographically unorthodox partnerships were formed to prepare radio programs, spanning Scandinavia to Africa.  In the technological metropole, the United States, a television program, assembling the stars of 1948, was prepared – but not retained, as magnetic tape was in its infancy, much to the disappointment of future historians. 

Human Rights Exhibition: Album (Paris, United Nations, UNESCO, 1950).
Further details: Publication 578 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  Printed in France by Imprimerie S.A.P.H.O.