From a slaughterhouse to a historic landmark: the United Nations headquarters

From a slaughterhouse to a historic landmark: the United Nations headquarters

In November 2019, the United Nations’ specialized Health agency -World Health Organization- recognized arts as a tonic by dint of its role in enhancing physical and mental health alike. The longitudinal study published furthers, as well, the beneficial effect of the evocative nature of artistic creations on policy-related activities. As such, highly cognizant of the stature of craftsmanship and flair, throughout the years, the United Nations’ staff ensured the gradual metamorphosis of their official headquarters into a ‘fine small museum.’ (Marks 1).

UN headquarters/Julie Cao.

Headquartered in New York City, located in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan and overlooking the East river, the official United Nations (UN) complex is visited by more than one million people per annum and incorporates more than 39,700 employees from 193 member nations around the globe according to the official website of the United Nations.

UN Headquarters, New York, NY/Neptuul

How about you? Have you ever fancied a tour within the confines of this historic landmark? Or better yet, are you riveted by the world of politics and interested in diplomacy? Would joining the United Nations be the upshot of your career?

Should this be the case, here’s what you need to know: it is never a dull day within the sprawling confines of the United Nations for the walls of the complex happen to exhibit a large group of artworks and historical objects -comprised mostly of sculptures, painting, tapestries and mosaics. Such objects constitute the diurnal working environment for a sizeable number of individuals. Notably, the sustained availability of fresh displays secures the picturesque element of the scene and allows for a convivial atmosphere that positively influences the staff.

As a matter of fact, these artistic treasures were gifted to the UN on a sundry of occasions by member states, associations or individuals. Customarily, each member can only extend one offering and the UN’s Protocol and Liaison service personnel oversee the unveiling and the installation of the artefacts.


Better yet, here’s la pièce de résistance: this miniature gallery epitomizes the UN international agenda, and unravels its approach on distinct issues -human rights, sustainable development and climate change among others. Otherwise stated, what makes the UN’s art collection more intriguing is that it is representative of the “arts of all nations”, as expressed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and that “it reflects the wonderful diversity of cultures and historical traditions that coexist at the United Nations. It also speaks of universal themes – peace, justice and human rights – shared by all the world’s peoples.”


In the remainder of this article, you are invited to accompany me on a rare tour as we unravel the meanings underlying the UN art collection. 

International Peace: 


The mounting sense of disorder, the evil puppeteers and the demons of death and carnage that reigned throughout both the first and second World Wars culminated in the foundation of the United Nations on 26 June 1945. The organization’s raison d’être is to avert wars and rows, get rid of the conflict-nexus and establish a society whose chief principle is peace, especially after the initial organization the League of Nations failed to prevent the occurrence of the second war. In this context, it comes as no surprise that the predominant theme celebrated in the art collection is peace.

War and Peace” Candido Portinari/Carlos Vieira.

In the Delegates’ lobby of the General Assembly building, two huge monumental panels representing the dichotomy between “war” and “peace” are on display. Mixing cubism, expressionism and fauvism, the murals are considered as “The most important monumental work of art donated to the UN,” as confirmed by Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the UN.                          

UN Photo/Lois Conner


“Guerra and Paz” is a gift from the Brazilian government whose painter, Candido Portinari, defied lead paint poisoning in order to create it. He made sure to feature the hope that the recently founded organization evinced to a world reeling from the atrocities of WWII. 

“War” tableau/Sao Paulo/Elton Alisson


Strikingly, the Mexican muralist did not portray war through the image of “soldiers fighting” but rather through “the people’s suffering,” in the words of Antonio Bento. Otherwise said, his inspiration was the pain as an inevitable consequence of war, and the dark palette of the “war” tableau which contrasts with the lighter shades of its counterpart “peace” offered a view into both thematic notions. In essence, “war and peace are more than magnificent works of art – they are Portinari’s call to action,” said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the second unveiling of the murals at the UN on 8 September 2015. “Thanks to him, all leaders who enter the United Nations see the terrible toll of the war and the universal dream for peace.”

UN Photo/Lois Connor


This dream of a world devoid of violence extends in other possessions among which the stained-glass window painted by Marc Chagall is renowned. The occasion which marked the creation of the “Window of Peace and Human Happiness” is what accentuates its unique nature.On 18 September 1961, in the wake of Dag Hammarskjold’s death along with 15 UN staff members and peacekeepers in a plane crash while on the way to negotiate peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chagall was commissioned to make “a living memorial” that will forever treasure the team who died serving the cause of peace.

UN Photo/Mark Garten

The window, suggestive of mankind’s struggle for peace, is said to be inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth symphony -Hammarskjold’s favourite piece of music- and like many of Chagall’s other works, by a biblical passage:

The people that walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

On those who live in a land of deep shadow

A light has shone.

You have made their gladness greater

You have made their joy increase.

They rejoice in your presence

As men rejoice at harvest time…

For every footgear of battle

Every cloak rolled in blood

Is burnt

And consumed by fire.

For there is a child born for us,

A son given to us

And dominion is on his shoulders

And this is the name they give him:

Wonder-counsellor, Mighty-God,

Eternal-Father, Prince of Peace.

Wide is his dominion

in a peace that has no end. (Isaiah 9, 1-7)



 “With all my soul I wanted to convey the extent of my inspiration and the inspiration of all those who died for peace, for that [is] the very purpose for which the UN was founded,” said the artist himself. Hence, standing about 15 feet wide and 12 feet tall, the window managed to convey the artist’s aim for its “shapes, colours and symbolic forms and designs,” using the expressions of Secretary-General U Thant, “express the simplicity and the beauty of the ideals of peace and brotherhood which we all   endeavour to serve.”


The thematic goal of peace and the exclusion of violence are on the foreground of other masterpieces featured in the art collection. Such pieces include “The Japanese Peace Bell” created by Chiyoji Nakagawa and gifted to the World Organization as “a hallmark of hope to see the end of all wars.” 

The Japanese Peace bell/Wikipedia.


Carl Fredrik Reutersward’s “Non-Violence” sculpture is yet another tribute to global concord and amity. Placed at the entrance of the General Assembly building, the piece gives “tangible expression to the continuous concern for disarmament of all member states of the United Nations,” asserted former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.         

non-violence sculpture/Robert J.Burrower.

Independence & Decolonization:  


Since its foundation, The United Nations extensively attempted to achieve the core ideals of its charter fully conscious that the maintenance of international peace and security correlates with an overarching economic, cultural and social blueprint. Among such goals is the promotion of the self-determination of the peoples. In fact, Article 73 of the UN charter advocates for both “self-government” and “the progressive development of free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples.” Notably, as the notion of colonization marked the 20th Century, the call for independence of some 750 million people living in non-Self-Governing territories found its genesis in the adoption of Article 73 and in the UN General Assembly proclamation that colonialism should be brought to ‘a speedy and unconditional end’.
This culminated in an earnest wave of decolonization that resulted in the independence of 80 former colonies. Within this framework, the 1960s was marked by the liberation of 17 African countries -Gambia, Gabon and Nigeria among others.

Awakening: UN photo/Michostzovares 

On the sixth anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, then Nigerian ambassador chief Simeon Olaosebikan Adebo granted a bronze statue known as “Awakening” to the UN as a gift from his country. Towering over delegates and staff members right between the Security Council and the Trusteeship Council Chambers, the sculpture crafted by artist Ben Enwonwu symbolizes the rise of Africa and the dawn of a new nation.


It is to be noted that the process of decolonization is not complete as currently there exists 17 non-Self-Governing territories. However, the UN’s efforts continue till today in their aim to keep violence at a minimum and to promote, conversely, the notion of freedom and equality for all.

Equality & Fraternity:


The UN art collection upholds the organization’s blueprint: Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet. Markedly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.(article 1). This can only be reached with the elimination of bias based on race, religion or sex… and by the endorsement, on the other hand, of the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” (Luke 6:31).

The golden rule mosaic/Jeff Pelline

This notion of ethical and moral treatment of others is subsumed in the mosaic offered to the UN in 1958 from the United States by  then first lady Nancy Reagan. Featuring individuals from divergent nationalities, hue and creed in a powerful message that dictates the desideratum of equal treatment and respect for diversity to build a virtuous world.


       Though the article provides a peek on the most salient chefs-d’oeuvre in the UN’s art collection, it should be noted that it is much more wide-ranging. In fact, the opus continues to expand converging artistry with the organization’s framework and ,consequently, enthralling not only the staff but also the visitors. In sooth, the UN usually offers guided tours in different languages with an expert speaker who provides an in-depth look into the confines of the headquarters. Naturally, these tours are currently suspended due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Yet, there is nothing to worry about for a UN online book store and virtual tours are now in place on the United Nations official Visitors Centre website.


As an important final note, and notwithstanding that the New York complex serves as the official headquarters for the UN secretariat, the World Organization’s different bodies are ubiquitous across the globe-particularly in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi. As such, it is pivotal to highlight that each headquarter possesses its own distinct features that makes it as unique as the rest.


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