Of all the objects Kimberley Moulton considered as she helped bring together Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition, it was a textbook – about legal policy and procedure – that made a lasting impact.

A senior curator at Museums Victoria in Melbourne, Moulton says holding the book was like touching history because it came from the law firm Mandela and Tambo. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo established the firm in Johannesburg in 1952 at Chancellor House, the same building that housed the offices of the African National Congress.

Theirs was South Africa's first "attorney firm" to be run by black partners and soon became an important space for clients seeking help to battle the country's repressive apartheid regime. The firm closed in 1960 when Mandela faced treason charges and Tambo left the country to rally international opposition to apartheid.

"The book had their stamp in it," says Moulton, who ordinarily curates South Eastern Aboriginal Collections for Museums Victoria. "This was a book that they had held and used to help many people. It just felt very special.

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"As an Aboriginal woman myself [Moulton is a Yorta Yorta Sovereign woman], in terms of apartheid and the oppressive government policies that Mandela went to prison fighting against, I felt I could connect to that. There was a cultural understanding."

Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition opens today at Eden Park. Here, in 1981 during the Springbok tour, flour bombs were dropped in protest against the apartheid regime in the rugby team's South African home and the ongoing imprisonment of Mandela, the future South African president.

Curator Kimberley Moulton says working on Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition taught her more about Nelson Mandela's life and work.
Curator Kimberley Moulton says working on Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition taught her more about Nelson Mandela's life and work.

Moulton says it makes sense for the exhibition to be staged at a rugby ground, given the strong and often complex connections between the sport, apartheid and, when Mandela came to power in 1994, its role in the reconciliation process.

"Exhibitions can take different forms and to step outside an institutional setting is another way to present history and may reach a slightly different audience," she says.

It includes about 200 original artefacts, documents, personal items and artworks from the Nelson Mandela Foundation and a private collector. Film and sound recordings of Mandela's speeches, a detailed physical replica of his prison cell, artworks and manuscripts from his writings from prison, as well as the famous pen which signed away apartheid, feature.

Moulton was part of a team working with the foundation, set up by Mandela in 1999 to promote freedom and equity for all, and his family to select the objects to appear, and design the exhibition. She says being part of it was a privilege.

"I really felt why the work he – and others around him – had done was so important, and the scope of what he was involved with, but also I felt I got to know more about him as a man, a husband and a father.

"There are letters to his daughters that he wrote when he was in jail [Mandela was imprisoned from 1962 – 1990] and you can read the sorrow in them that he had not been able to be with them and how he wanted them to stay strong. The power of his words was always very strong."

Nelson Mandela in Auckland in 1995; now the city's Eden Park is the venue for a world first exhibition about the South African leader's life. Photo/New Zealand Herald.
Nelson Mandela in Auckland in 1995; now the city's Eden Park is the venue for a world first exhibition about the South African leader's life. Photo/New Zealand Herald.

Unsurprisingly, the multi-million dollar, 800sq m exhibition was several years in the making. It was decided to structure the exhibition – and the journey visitors make around it – based on the many different names Mandela was given throughout his life.

These became like chapters in a book, each one representing an important moment in his growth and identity as well as the history of political resistance and change in South Africa and the humanitarian work and legacy that continues in his name.

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"At one stage in the 1960s, Mandela was known as the Black Pimpernel – a play on the Scarlet Pimpernel – when he travelled overseas, often in disguise, training in guerrilla warfare, holding secret meetings and talking to allies about opposing apartheid," says Moulton. "There's a really interesting history of his travels with some photos from that time."

Critics have commented that the exhibition doesn't ask difficult questions or dig deeply enough into Mandela's complexities; Moulton says that was never the aim.

"No exhibition is going to be to tick every box," she says. "This was always about celebrating his life and looking at the more personal aspects of it. Mandela is one of the world's most written about leaders and world leaders can be divisive, but we set out to open in 2018, in the 100th year of his birth, and reflect on key moments in his life. We're very proud of what lies at the heart of this exhibition."

She watched visitors at Melbourne Museum make their way through the exhibition and acknowledges some, watching video footage or listening to recordings, shed a tear or two; others said it brought back memories of incidents in their own lives and there were, for some, definite "a-ha" moments when an understanding dawned about the magnitude of what Mandela – and numerous others – had fought against.

"I think people could see it wasn't just something that happened in history or somewhere else in the world that was removed from their lives; it was something that they saw reported on the news but had a very real impact. It's important history for us all to know."

And the impact on her?

"Mandela's words are still so very relevant," she says. "To me, in a world where we need to take more care of each other, to be kind and to see the humanity in one another, it shows there's still work to be done and we should be the generation to continue to make that change."

Lowdown:

Produced by iEC Exhibitions, Museums Victoria and TEG Live in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition is in Auckland as part of a five-year worldwide tour. It is on at Eden Park until Sunday, August 4.