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ARTS AND CULTURE

5 MIN

While in New York, Tour the World at the UN

You'll come for the history and stay for the art.

Most guided tours begin with a story about location. This tour is no different, though the location is.

“You are now officially in international territory,” says our guide to the group of about 20 Americans and Canadians gathered at the entrance of a hulking building that hugs New York’s East River. 

This is a tour of the United Nations Headquarters. As our guide points out, while it seems like just another corner of New York, the complex that sits on First Avenue between 42nd and 48th Streets has extraterritorial status, making it unique among the city’s sights. 

While not an official governing body, the UN is the seat of incredible power. Founded following the Second World War and comprised of 193 member countries, the United Nations is an intergovernmental organization that works to maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, deliver humanitarian aid, promote sustainable development, and uphold international law.

If that doesn’t sound overly exciting, consider this: The UN has a history of being the world’s stage for global leaders. It’s where the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro delivered a record-breaking 4½ -hour speech in 1960 railing against U.S foreign policy. It’s where Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1988 address was seen by many as the beginning of the end of the Cold War. And it’s where incendiary remarks from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, charging that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were an inside job, caused a dramatic walkout by Western diplomats. More recently, Trusteeship Council chamber is where Malala Yousafzai, the 19-year-old activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, gave her defiant and triumphant speech.

Vesna Jaksic Lowe

The Trusteeship Council chamber where Malala Yousafzai, the 19-year-old activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, gave her defiant and triumphant speech.

The United Nations is also where celebrities have come to advance their cause. It’s where Leonardo DiCaprio gave his address on climate change, where Emma Watson delivered an impassioned speech about gender equality, and where Ashton Kutcher spoke out against human trafficking.

Whether you can enter some of the big meeting spaces that have held this historic events depends on what is in session during your tour. The days we visited we were able to see three of them, which helped curtail the disappointment some participants felt when they learned the Security Council chamber was closed.

In each chamber, small details tell the story of the room’s function or its history. For instance, in the Economic and Social Council chamber we learned that the roof has an unfinished look to symbolize that there is always more work to be done to achieve full economic and social rights. In the General Assembly Hall, we learn that Cuba donated the gold-leafed background behind the UN emblem, Ireland gave the green carpet, and the curtains came from Haiti.

Vesna Jaksic Lowe

The Golden Rule mosaic, a creation of Venetian artists and was based on a painting by Norman Rockwell.

As we continue our hour-long tour, our guide (who is from Rio de Janeiro), tells us that South Sudan was the most recent country to gain membership to the UN in 2011. The tour guide is careful to (twice) explain the limits of UN’s power.

“The UN is not the world’s government – it’s a multi-governmental organization whose autonomy depends very much on what member states decide,” he says.

Still, since it’s in international territory, the UN does not always follow New York’s laws. One local ordinance that was flouted long after it was enacted was the indoor smoking ban. While New York City outlawed smoking inside in 2003, the UN did not vote to follow suit until 2008. Entry into the building is also subject to rigorous security.

The UN headquarters, an austere mid-century structure completed in 1952 and designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, was recently renovated as part of a capital improvement project. 

“The main idea was to make the headquarters more eco-friendly and more secure,” says our guide. One refurbishment was to remove tar and nicotine from the emblem in the General Assembly Hall. Another removed mercury from the old earphones.

While understanding and appreciating history and global politics is one reason to visit the United Nations, the other is the art.

Vesna Jaksic Lowe

"Non-Violence," the famous knotted gun statue by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd memorializing the death of John Lennon.

There is a tradition among member countries of donating art to the United Nations, and the evidence is everywhere you look at the headquarters. Our tour group is barely up the first escalator when our guide is already being peppered with questions about which country donated which piece of art.

Start outside in the UN Visitors Plaza where the first piece of art you’ll find is a sculpture of a knotted gun. Titled Non-Violence, it was created by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd and is a tribute to his friend John Lennon, who was shot dead in 1980.

You’ll also find the UN’s newest piece in the Plaza. The Ark of Return is an installation by architect Rodney Leon and honours victims of slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade.

Our guide stopped by the statue of St. Agnes, which was found in Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb exploded in 1945. He points out charring from heat and radiation, and takes a moment to discuss the importance of disarmament.

The United Nations art collection also includes stained glass from Marc Chagall, a pair of murals by Fernand Léger, the Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares sculpture from Evgeniy Vuchetich, and a tapestry copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

The UN tours are open to the public, and worth considering if you have a few hours to spare. You will learn a little about how the international organization works, may see where the Security Council and General Assembly meet, and can check out art donated by some of the 193 member states. You can also see some of the rotating exhibits in the lobby, shop for commemorative stamps and gifts from around the world, and have lunch with views of the East River – and maybe some diplomats.

To take a tour, it’s best to buy a ticket online, but you can also try your luck by showing up as tours run every 15 minutes (December is usually the busiest month because of the influx of tourists around the holidays). Guided tours, offered in 12 languages from 25 guides from around the world, run between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, except on holidays. UN tour guides give an average of 60 tours a day to more than 250,000 visitors yearly.

After the tour, you can grab an affordable meal at a café in the Visitor Centre, located in the basement, which also has a bookstore and gift shop. If you plan ahead, you can book lunch reservations in the Delegates Dining Room, where a three-course prix-fixe costs $40 if you are not a UN employee, and you can judge if it lives up to its claim as “one of Manhattan’s best kept secrets.”

Before you leave international territory be sure to do one more unique thing: stop by the post office in the Visitor Centre and mail a postcard. Not only can you regale your friends and loved ones with all the knowledge acquired at the UN, but you can stick it with a United Nations stamp, which is only valid at the global headquarters.

 

Published Tuesday, April 4th 2017

Header image credit: Shutterstock

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