UNESCO's Human Rights Exhibition, 1949-1955

The exhibition Visualizing Universalism probes the archive of the Human Rights Exhibition organized by UNESCO in 1949. Designed for travel to multiple locations, the 1949 exhibition was conceived as a vehicle for disseminating the content of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” (UDHR) adopted one year prior. The portable exhibition package contained an album with 110 images illustrating episodes within the history of human rights, a printed copy of the UDHR, and an instruction manual offering suggestions for the installation of the exhibition content.

Today, the moral language of “human rights” appears so natural to our contemporary sensibilities that we rarely question its history and universal applicability. However, an inquiry into the UNESCO Human Rights Exhibition reveals that the international propagation of a novel moral language proved a significant challenge. At the time of the adoption of the UDHR, the idea of human rights did not yet imply a given moral vocabulary; this had to be invented. Thus, an eclectic organizing committee–comprising bureaucrats, intellectuals and architects–sought to embellish the abstract idea of human rights with tangible visual content implying a universally shared, progressive history.

The full contents of the traveling exhibition package are displayed together with photographs of its installation in Haiti, Luxembourg, Japan, Thailand, Germany, Brazil, and Italy. The exhibition further features publicity images, installation photographs from the inaugural 1949 Paris exhibition, and documents from the UNESCO archives that reveal the struggle to formalize and visualize human rights as a new universalism.

Taking a step back from an advocatory approach to human rights, the Visualizing Universalism exhibition interrogates the universalizing logic behind this early attempt to spread human rights by foregrounding the process of defining and staging the content of what was then an entirely novel moral conception. The current exhibition invites its viewers to critically reconsider the many foundational myths that present human rights as self-evident, universal and natural.




Columbia University The Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery

April 17 - May 23, 2014 

Katrine Bregengaard 
Eva Prag

Director of Exhibitions: 
Mark Wasiuta

Exhibitions Coordinators: 
Adam Bandler
Nina Valerie Kolowratnik