Art Inside the United Nations

Art Inside the United Nations

Many know the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan for its modern architecture, towering Secretariat Building, and 195 flags proudly waving out front. The exterior of the UN Headquarters is indeed a groundbreaking work of art in itself, but inside also holds artistic treasures. Within both the UN Headquarters garden and walls, you will take in some of the most powerful works of art in the city. Many pieces were gifts from various countries that make up the United Nations and have very powerful social messages. To see them you must stop by the Visitor Centre and book a ticket, for either the grounds or a tour. Tours are offered in over 14 languages so everyone can enjoy and learn. 




One of the most powerful works of art inside the United Nations is called Non-Violence. Visitors will see it as soon as they pass through security. Non-Violence is a sculpture of a giant bronze revolver, only the barrel is tied into a knot. Even with very little context, the message is loud and clear. 


Non-Violence was the creation of Carl Fredrik Reutersward, a Swedish artist who was friends with John Lennon. After Lennon was shot in New York City, Reutersward had the idea of this sculpture. This work of art was cast in Pietrasanta, Italy and completed in 1985. Interestingly, the United Nations was not the first home of Non-Violence. Originally, this work of art was placed in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields. In 1988, the Government of Luxembourg gifted Non-Violence to the UN Headquarters, where it remains today, a reminder of the UN ‘s concern for disarmament. 




One of the darkest days for members of the UN was September 18, 1961. While on a peace mission to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, 15 UN staff members and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold died when their plane crashed near Zambia. One of Hammarskjold’s favorite artists, Marc Chagall, was asked to create a “living memorial” in memory of those who perished. Three years later, Chagall presented a tranquil and beautiful work of stained glass. This beautiful stained glass art inside the United Nations is meant to express, in Chagall’s words, “the simplicity and beauty of the ideals of peace and brotherhood which we all endeavor to serve.” 




Two years before Japan became a Member State of the United Nations, it donated a meaningful work of art to the headquarters. In 1951, Chiyoji Nakagawa was Japan’s observer to the UN. Nakagawa fought during WWII and had a very traumatic experience. He was shot in the leg and fell unconscious. He woke up in a pagoda bell tower to discover everyone else in his regiment had died. It was at this moment that he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to trying to end all wars. It was from this commitment to peace that the idea for the Japanese Peace Bell was born. 


While the bell is officially a gift from the people of Japan, the whole world played a role in its creation. It is actually cast using coins and medals from different countries across the globe. It is said that the Pope even contributed. Of his inspiration, Nakagawa said, “I want to collect coins and medals from people all over the world, going beyond differences in ideas, principles, regions, races, and nationalities, to melt them into one molded piece to cast a bell as a symbol of the wish for peace and present it to the United Nations headquarters. I want the bell to be tolled for peace.” The Japanese Peace Bell is rung every year on September 21, the International Day of Peace.




It was 2019 when the United Nations Headquarters received The Ark of Return, the first permanent memorial to honor the 15 million victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The design was chosen from among 310 entries, each presented by different artists and architects. The winner was a Haitian architect named Rodney Leon. Leon’s work is well known in NYC, as he also designed the African Burial Ground Memorial. 


The Ark of Return is a striking memorial and work of art inside the United Nations garden. It is positioned on the east side, overlooking the East River. The first thing one notices is an elegant, marble triangle structure. The triangle shape represents the triangular slave trade, the maps of which are actually etched into the sculpture. 


One of the most haunting elements of The Ark of Return is a figure carved out of black, Zimbabwean granite. The figure visually describes the cramped quarters and harsh living conditions the enslaved endured while crossing the Atlantic. In fact, it’s estimated that 15% of all those enslaved died during the journey. When one sees the figure depicting these conditions, it’s hard not to gasp.


Throughout the structure there are impactful reminders of the devastation of transatlantic slavery. Leon hopes that these symbols will “also serve as a call to action against the many contemporary manifestations of slavery, from human trafficking…to debt bondage.” 


Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, stated that the memorial also recognizes “the significant contributions that slaves and their descendents have made.”


The structure also encourages onlookers to think of the future and work hard to ensure a similar tragedy is never repeated. That is the power of the art inside the United Nations. 

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