Upon hearing that the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is hosting a Nelson Mandela exhibition, one might ask: What does Nelson Mandela have to do with the Holocaust? The answer: Well, nothing directly. But Mandela: Struggle for Freedom, running February 20 through September 12 (and available to see both in person and virtually), does reflect the Skokie museum’s larger mission. “We are grounded in the history and lessons of the Holocaust, but we take that and move it forward into other social justice issues and human rights violations,” says Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “This show is meant to look at this time period in South African history and have people question, What is justice? What is social justice in society?”

Mandela addresses those questions with a dense mix of multimedia, historical artifacts, and interactive installations. The centerpiece is a full-scale replica of Mandela’s eight-by-seven-foot prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of the 27 years he was incarcerated by the South African government. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which originally produced the exhibition in 2018 in partnership with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, aimed for an approximation of his oppressive conditions through a fidelity to Robben Island’s minimal provisions — the cell contains just a sisal mat, two blankets, a bucket, a bowl, cutlery, and a short wooden stool. In addition to a number of items of Mandela’s (including a notebook and some of his letters), the show also encourages visitor participation, such as with a touchscreen that lets people create their own protest poster (though this feature won’t be available unless it can be used safely, likely after virus-related restrictions ease later in the year.)

Mandela falls in the middle of a trifecta of special exhibitions tied to major activist figures and events of the second half of the 20th century. All last year, the museum displayed Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And on October 17, it will unveil Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement, which uses the June 1969 raid of the Greenwich Village bar as an anchor for a wide-ranging survey of LGBTQ advocacy. But this programming doesn’t reflect a shift away from the museum’s public focus. “On an ongoing basis we have a 10,000-square-foot Holocaust history exhibition,” Weininger says. “We cover the topic very well.”

The scheduling of the latest special exhibition is not random. “Mandela comes at a time when the museum can use broader lessons of discrimination, racial policy, injustice, and inequity and balance that with people who are currently working to create change,” says Kelley H. Szany, vice president of education and exhibitions. “The ending of apartheid didn’t happen overnight. It took a really long time, and sometimes we have to be patient, which isn’t always what we want to do. But change is possible, and Mandela is a good example and inspiration that people need now.”

These themes echo back to the founding of the musuem: It was established, as the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, in 1981 in response to repeated attempts by neo-Nazis in the late 1970s to march through Skokie. “We knew we couldn’t be another Holocaust museum that opened our doors and said, ‘Never again,’ and just use it as a platitude,” Szany says. “We knew to work toward that being an actual promise.”