Not long after Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island in 1990, some enterprising schoolboys from Melbourne wrote to invite him to their city. Accepting the invitation as part of an international tour he made after his release, he was granted Freedom of the City, the highest honour Melbourne can bestow. It’s perhaps testament to this relationship that a major exhibition celebrating the centenary of Mandela’s birth will open at Melbourne Museum this month. 

A partnership project between the Museum and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, Mandela My Life: The Exhibitionis spearheaded by lead curator Samantha Heywood. Although an insight into his life and times, Heywood and her team were conscious of avoiding the hagiographical. “I think the main purpose of the exhibition is to get a sense of who Mandela was as a person, really,” says Heywood. “What drove him, what his family background was, what his family became. And some of the controversies around his life.”

Nelson Mandela Nelson Mandela, 1962.  Photo © University of Dundee, The Peto Collection

Although structured chronologically, the curators were also determined to steer clear of simply presenting an...