How do you fit the United Nations in a museum?

By Michael Igoe 30 March 2016

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (center) with Jan Mattsson (left), CEO and founder of M-Trust Leadership and executive director of the U.N. Live Museum Initiative, and Henrik Skovby (right), founder and executive chairman of Dalberg. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations

The next earthquake strikes, or the next conflict erupts. Communities take refuge in temporary shelters. United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations scramble to respond with food and medical supplies.

In the midst of the crisis response, with limited resources available to save lives and livelihoods, would it be justified to send cameras, computers and transmitters, so people affected by the disaster can share their stories with the rest of the world?

For Jan Mattsson, this is more than a thought experiment. A U.N. veteran who worked at the organization for more than three decades, Mattsson is leading an effort to create a museum dedicated to the United Nations, and these are the stories he and his team want to fill it with.

“When you go to these conflict zones, when you go to these natural disasters … people come up to you, and they want to tell their story, and they say, ‘please tell the world about our situation.’ They want their story to get out,” said Mattsson, who served most recently in the U.N. as head of the Office for Project Services.

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The “U.N. Live Museum” is where those stories might find a home. Mattsson and an accomplished team of designers and diplomats have proposed an interactive, physical and virtual institution to fill the gap in public understanding of what the United Nations is and what it does. They are seeking the U.N.’s endorsement — in the form of a U.N. resolution — but want to retain independence from the 70-year-old international organization.

This is the first major effort to capture the depth and breadth of the UN system and bring it all together in a museum. The United Nations’ historical legacy is currently scattered among pockets of historical archives and kept in various states of repair. These include the Dag Hammarskjöld Library in New York and the soon-to-be-renovated League of Nations Museum at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, as well as a handful of visitors centers.

The U.N. Live team — with Mattsson as its executive director — is selling a three-pronged vision, which stretches the traditional definition of a museum. If it gets built according to plan, U.N. Live will include a physical building — planned for Copenhagen — a U.N. Live Online platform, and a U.N. Live Network of partner sites and institutions. It would link up existing U.N. visitors centers, libraries, and other historical legacy projects, but also connect visitors with U.N. professionals’ day to day work, as well as the lives of the people with whom they interact.

Mattsson, a mild-mannered Swedish engineer, is brimming with ideas for what the U.N. Live Museum’s physical and virtual exhibits might include. He imagines real time contributions from refugees and people working to rebuild their communities; traveling, pop-up exhibitions, viewing screens in shopping malls, and content partnerships with international organizations, libraries and science museums; and partnerships with teachers’ associations to create links between lesson plans and U.N. programs.

“There are just so many things that one could cover,” Mattsson said. “So what to choose?”

UN Live’s core focus is on children and young adults. Its mission statement is “to make U.N. values felt and relevant to the everyday lives of people around the world” — by helping them to see the United Nations as more than a building in midtown Manhattan, or the bickering Security Council on TV. The United Nations employs 44,000 people, 60 percent of them in field locations around the world. U.N. Live is also about sharing values like multilateralism, problem-solving and mutual responsibility, its founders say.

Could a virtual, interactive museum dedicated to the U.N.’s values help school kids understand bullying as a human rights issue, for example? Would that change their perception of the appropriate response?

“I’m not talking about the need to know the U.N. charter by heart or something like that,” Mattsson explained, “but the potential of the U.N. and the values, principles, purposes of the U.N., and the need to work internationally for some of those issues.”

Toward that goal, the project has attracted top digital and design talent, including Michael Edson, the former director of Web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institutions. Edson is U.N. Live’s head of digital.

“What we think of as a museum … is changing very quickly,” said Edson. “What we can do, how we can ask questions, what we can present, how we can catalyze action and the creation of civic good — we have a much broader and more powerful canvas … than we did 10 or 20 years ago, and a lot of that is because of the Internet.”

A who’s who of U.N. personalities have voiced support for the idea: among others, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Development Program head Helen Clark, and former Secretary-Generals Kofi Annan and the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Danish foundations have contributed startup funding, and Mattsson is hopeful Denmark will be among the countries that can get a resolution on the agenda. With that vote of confidence, Mattsson hopes additional funding will start to flow to the project.

The U.N. Live team is working now to get a U.N. resolution introduced in support of the project. Such a resolution would establish ties between U.N. Live and the United Nations, but Mattsson is quick to point out that U.N. Live will have its own independent governance structure. The point, he said, is not to be another top-down communications department, but to provide a trusted, horizontal platform where people can engage with each other.

The most effective way to engage people in understanding the Syrian crisis, for example, might not be carefully controlled messages, delivered from the U.N.’s upper echelons, but with stories about what it feels like to live through the conflict — or to deliver humanitarian aid to a besieged city.

“If you take Syria, it’s a demonstration of the shortcomings of the U.N. and the international community at the highest level. But there are still human stories there. There is still a need for people to understand better,” Mattsson said.

Michael Møller, a member of U.N. Live’s design and content committee and the director-general of the United Nations Office at Geneva, said he is hopeful the museum could help people realize that the United Nation’s work — most of it “very pedestrian, day to day stuff” — affects their lives on a daily basis.

“Nobody really understands the impact and the relevance to their personal lives of what the system is doing,” Møller said. “There’s not a single person on this planet that isn’t touched by what the U.N. is doing every single minute of the day all year round. That is a fact that we need to bring out there, and U.N. Live is a very important tool in making that happen.”

In recent years, security concerns have run up against public engagement and visibility. These concerns are not limited to the United Nations. Professionals in a variety of overseas missions complain their compounds have come to resemble fortresses, and that the outreach necessary to build relationships and common understanding with their host countries is no longer possible.

But even though the UN, along with other development agencies, has “started to hide behind walls,” Mattsson said, there are plenty of places where it has established a “public presence,” which can be built on, networked, and highlighted on the U.N. Live platform.

That message holds for the approach to developing content too. Edson, head of digital, is helping U.N. Live’s team open up the design process through a process he calls “bottom-up and outside-in,” sourcing ideas from both U.N. people on the ground, and from a broader community of schools, libraries, civil society, other museums and anyone else who occupies the “shared problem space” where the U.N. does its work.

Edson declined to list exhibits he expects might make the cut, in order to keep the “problem space” open for broad participation. But he did explain what he hopes the U.N. Live might contribute overall.

“It would be tremendously gratifying to help build an institution that helps humanity have a smarter conversation about the difficult ideas that we face,” Edson said. “I think the future is going to be a lot weirder and more challenging than even the bravest of us have been willing to admit, and we as a species need to start building institutions that can help everyone be smarter about what the future is going to be like and to take action now.”

The problem today, according to Møller, is not that people know less about the United Nations now than they used to, but that in the information age, when everyone can make her voice heard, the need to understand the U.N.’s function and principles is greater than ever before.

“We need to make sure that that expression of opinions is done not just on the basis of narrow personal agendas but on a much better and more sophisticated understanding of what the world looks like, what the problems are, what the solutions are,” Møller said — “and what our individual responsibilities are.”

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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