Nelson Mandela's defiance of apartheid commemorated in Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibit

The new Nelson Mandela exhibit set to open this week at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is drawing rave reviews from the museum director who founded the Apartheid Museum in South Africa.

New exhibit turns replica of anti-apartheid leader's tiny cell into immersive digital theatre

A new temporary exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, opening this week, will recognize the trials and tribulations of Nelson Mandela's life. (Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

The new Nelson Mandela exhibit set to open this week at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is drawing rave reviews from the founder of the Apartheid Museum in South Africa.

"Last night I had a chance to walk through what they've done and I must say, it's extraordinary to see the original narrative transformed at the hands of another group of curators," Christopher Till said on Tuesday. 

"It encapsulates everything that we wanted to tell about Nelson Mandela's life, but it also brought in the threads and the themes that are relevant today as they ever were."

Beginning Thursday, the public can follow in the footsteps of the revolutionary hero who fought against apartheid — a system of institutionalized racial segregation imprinted in South Africa's DNA for decades — in a new exhibit, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, at the Winnipeg museum.

Celebrated as a revered human rights figure worldwide, Mandela died in 2013 at the age of 95. He was imprisoned for 27 years in an open act of defiance against his racist government. 

A replica of Nelson Mandela's two-by-2½ metre prison cell, featuring a digital theatre imposed onto its walls, is a highlight of the exhibit. (Jessica Sigurdson/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

A feature attraction at the exhibit is an installation of Mandela's tiny two-by-2½ metre prison cell, where he spent 18 years behind bars. Visitors will find the cell transformed into a digital theatre, depicting a story of resistance in the face of repression.

Till experienced what it was like to be locked in the replica jail for more than an hour.

It amazes him how Mandela, in spite of his confinement, was resolute in his desire for a better world.

"The message was reconciliation and nation-building and working together collaboratively to build a new nation out of the ashes of apartheid. It is so important today to hold that mirror up because much of that has evaporated, even in our own country," Till said of South Africa.

The immersive exhibit, developed in collaboration with Till's Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, employs visuals, sounds and artifacts to depict Mandela's fight and the movement he started.

It is separated into five sections representing periods of apartheid, defiance, repression, mobilization and freedom.

An imposing wall scribbled with racist laws is one of the installations at the new Nelson Mandela temporary exhibit. (Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

The exhibit includes a towering five-metre wall scrawled with the country's racist laws that dictated people's movements and actions based only on the colour of their skin, as well as a re-creation of a secret apartment used by freedom fighters forced to go underground.

Isabelle Masson, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights' lead curator, has been impacted by Mandela's movement for years, birthed from her time in South Africa watching the country's first-ever democratic election in 1994. 

"That experience of witnessing … history unfold all around me completely transformed my perspective on things and gave me a passion for politics," she said.

She made multiple trips to South Africa to devise an exhibit she hopes will resonate with visitors.

She wanted the exhibit to not only be a fitting embodiment of Mandela's life, but acknowledge Canada's support of his vision.

The exhibit teaches visitors about apartheid and the movement that fought against the system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. (Jessica Sigurdson/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

"We hope that the exhibit is a source of inspiration."

A public opening for the exhibit will be held Thursday at 7 p.m., featuring remarks from Masson, Till, CMHR president and CEO John Young and Brock University Prof. Dolana Mogadime, whose mother's story as a South African-Canadian anti-apartheid activist is presented in the exhibition.

After Thursday's free opening event, the exhibit will be open from June 8 until early 2019.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at


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