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July 19, 2008

Michigan State University and the MSU Museum, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Museum and the Keeper of the Word Foundation, are helping civil rights leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela celebrate his 90th birthday this month with a powerful cultural exchange program.

Opening on July 19 is the special exhibition “Dear Mr. Mandela… Mrs. Parks: Children’s Letters, Global Lessons” at the Nelson Mandela National Museum in Mthatha, South Africa, Mandela’s birthplace in the Eastern Cape Province. Mandela, who retired from public life in 2004, will make a rare public appearance for this event – set for the day after his actual birthday, which he is reserving exclusively for time with family.

The exhibition was developed when the MSU Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum were awarded one of the first four grants from a new program of the American Association of Museums, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, designed to strengthen connections between people in the U.S. and abroad through museum-based exchanges.

The inspiration for “Dear Mr. Mandela… Mrs. Parks” came from the hundreds of children around the world who have written letters to two individuals–Nelson Mandela of South Africa and the late Rosa Parks of the United States–who are internationally known for their work in human rights. The letters reveal why children revere Mandela and Parks and also young people’s desires for guidance and understanding about life.

“Dear Mr. Mandela… Mrs. Parks” uses those letters to illustrate the shared values and goals held by Parks and Mandela: courage and hope, the struggle for freedom, the power of knowledge and education, faith and spirituality, pathways to and the price of freedom, and action and reconciliation. Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela greatly admired each other, shared many values and goals, and both cared deeply about youth. Mandela met Parks, often referred to as the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement” in America, for the first time in Detroit in 1990 when Mr. Mandela toured the United States after his release from prison (for anti-apartheid activities).

“The exhibit also encourages visitors – especially youth — to understand and be tolerant of diverse cultures and traditions, become aware of the ongoing struggle for human rights around the world, and recognize ways to honor individuals in their own families and communities who–like Mandela and Parks–have contributed, in large and small ways, to making a better world,” notes MSU Museum Director C. Kurt Dewhurst, one of the exhibit’s organizers.

After its run at the Nelson Mandela National Museum, “Dear Mr. Mandela… Mrs. Parks” is expected to tour the U.S., providing the springboard for discussion and learning about these two powerful figures and the ongoing struggle for human rights around the world.

Mandela has received more than one hundred awards over four decades, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In 2008, he was awarded an honorary degree from Michigan State University, a university which was active in South Africa’s struggles for democracy and equality and which continues to be engaged with a number of research and public education projects with South Africans.

Last year, Gregory Reed (MSU B.S., 1970), the personal lawyer of Rosa Parks, announced a planned gift to the Michigan State University Museum of a collection of letters children wrote to Parks. Reed, through his Detroit-based Keeper of the Word Foundation, works to protect the legacies of authors, artists, and activists. A book written by Parks and Reed served as the starting point for the development of the joint Mandela and Parks exhibition.

The MSU Museum, along with the staff of its project partners, has engaged other MSU faculty, staff, and students and community members in South Africa and Michigan in the research and development of this project. Through projects like this and others, Michigan State University Museum seeks to use its resources to generate awareness and understanding of local and global issues related to natural and cultural diversity and to create meaningful, experiential opportunities to address those issues.

The MSU Museum has developed South African cultural heritage partnerships formed during the 2000-2006 South African National Cultural Heritage Project. This project represents the ongoing commitment of the Nelson Mandela National Museum and Michigan State University Museum to continue to create bi-national research, exhibition, and educational programs that will increase understanding of South African and American history, art, and culture.

Learn more:

-Michigan State University:
-Michigan State University Museum:
-Nelson Mandela National Museum:
-America Association of Museum “Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad:”

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