It's fitting that the well-loved travelling exhibition, “Dear, Mr Mandela, Dear, Mrs Parks Children's Letters Global Lessons Exhibition", returns to the Stellenbosch University Museum during International Women's Month, as it reminds us of the impact one woman – Rosa Parks – had on civil rights in America in the 1950s.
It is also a reminder of the power of ordinary people to become agents of change. Through a collection of letters written by hundreds of children around the world to South African liberation leader, Nelson Mandela, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks, one gets a sense of the potency of words, simple deeds, and acts of quiet strength.
First opened at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, in 2008, the exhibition has travelled between the US and SA over the years. It was last in Stellenbosch in 2014, and almost a decade later, the exhibition's message remains as relevant.
The stories of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela remain powerful as they teach us about leadership, said Bongani Mgijima, Director of the SU Museum, at the recent opening in Stellenbosch. Parks' simple act of courage – her refusal to give up a bus seat reserved for whites – showed that “you can use the resources that you have to make a change". The impact is seen in the simple handwritten letter dated 1996, from a South African boy named Randall, which says: “You are a brave woman for not giving up your seat."
This modernised version of the exhibition was developed by the Nelson Mandela Museum (Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa) in partnership with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development (Detroit, Michigan, USA) and Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing, Michigan, USA), with a grant from the United States Embassy in South Africa.
Prof Kurt Dewhurst, Director of Cultural Initiatives at Michigan State University remarked at the opening: “This has become a new exhibit because so much has happened in our world and there are threats to democracy around us. So, this is not just an updated exhibition, but a new exhibition that we hope will speak to this younger generation."
Other exhibition partners include Mind-Builders Creative Arts Centre (Bronx, NYC, USA), Stellenbosch University Museum (Stellenbosch, South Africa) and the Robben Island Museum (Cape Town, South Africa).
Ulrich Wolff, Curator of the SU Museum, said: “I hope this exhibition can inspire those who don't know the stories behind Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks to reflect on their own stories, and find the courage to instigate change in their own communities."
As Parks once noted: “Memories of our lives, or our works and our deeds will continue in others." This exhibition, which will move on to the Robben Island Museum in May, ensures that the quiet strength and courage of these leaders will endure and inspire a new generation of leaders.
“I think we can all learn to find ways to become agents of change in this world. Change starts with each of us. Thanks to these two icons, this exhibition promises to help to do just that," noted Wolff.