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Reception of the exhibition: from criticism to admiration


The exhibition did not leave anyone indifferent and it has received – is still receiving - both warm feedback or criticism. As soon as the 1950s, the reception wavered between enthusiasm and questioning.

On the one hand people were enthusiastic about the idea of belonging to a single humanity, eager to answer to a call for fraternity that was shared by the majority of the public and that was echoing the concerns and fears of that time. On the other hand, the exhibition was supposed to bring answers to its own message and to its representation strategies.

Much has been said and written since the exhibition was created. Some considered that it was sentimental and naive, imbued with a western vision, whereas others received it as a complex and engaged visual storytelling that fostered democratic participation and could be seen as a manifesto for human rights. Nowadays it has been reconsidered to become a nuanced reflection on a complex and easily accessible work that has been moving people and still continues to draw attention while delivering a still-relevant message.

Nina Leen, Four generations of farmers in this Ozark family posing in front of a wall with portraits of their fifth generation, Bellevue, Missouri, USA, 1946, Time & Life © Getty Images

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Muslim women on the slopes of Hari Parbal Hill, praying toward the sun rising behind the Himalayas, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 1948 © Magnum Photos

Dmitri Kessel, Hopeful voter casting her ballot for new town council which promised to save Tignes from forced evacuation and flooding, Tignes, France, 1952, Time & Life © Getty Images

Andreas Feininger, Lunch time on 5th Avenue.
Blocks of pedestrians jamming the sidewalks next to 2-way-laned 5th Avenue teaming w. bumper-to-bumper traffic nr. 34th St.,
New York, USA, 1948, Time & Life © Getty Images

The reception has widely gone far beyond the exhibition’s first purposes and because it was proposing a different way to think photography, it has inspired a new generation of photographers, scenographers, curators… and stands above all to have recorded the memory of a time.

Installation de l’exposition “The Family of Man” au Château de Clervaux © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021


Restoration, last journey and registration in the UNESCO Memory of the World list

In 1964, at the end of the collection's journey around the world, the American government presented it as gift to the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg, as it had been requested by Edward Steichen. The photographer himself had favoured his native land and more precisely for Clervaux Castle to permanently welcome his collection of photographs.

Marcel Schroeder, Edward Steichen in the courtyard of the Château de Clervaux, 1966 © Phototèque de la ville de Luxembourg

The relationship between Steichen and Luxembourg about "The Family of Man"

In 1952, while Steichen was travelling through Europe in order to collect photographs for his future exhibition, he offered Luxembourg to be the first country of its international tour. The government refused under the pretext, as it was widely believed at that time, that photography was not an art but just a craft for commercial purposes. It took about ten years until Steichen was reconciled with his native country, Luxembourg, and this time the proposition was to be more warmly welcomed. Indeed, in 1963, he met Grand Duchess Charlotte at the White House and he told her: “Ech sinn e lëtzebuerger Jong” (“I am a boy from Luxembourg”).

Grand-Duchess Charlotte & Edward Steichen at the White House, 1963

Neglected for a long time and only partially displayed since the mid-1970s, this heritage was rediscovered in 1989. All the original photographs were restored by the CNA (National Centre for Audiovisual Arts). A second complete restoration occurred between 2010 and 2013.

© CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

© CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

© CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

© CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

After a last showing in Toulouse, France, in Tokyo and in Hiroshima, Japan which welcomed each day up to three thousand persons eager to admire the collection, the exhibition permanently opened at Clervaux Castle in June 1994.

The National Audiovisual Centre

The Luxembourg National Centre for Audiovisual Arts is a cultural institute founded in 1989 under the authority of the Ministry of Culture. Its main missions are to collect, to conserve and to promote Luxembourg’s photographic, audio and film heritage. Nowadays, the photographic archive holds about 500,000 documents and reveals the richness of image creation and photography in Luxembourg. The historical collection The Family of Man and its restoration project in 1989 was the CNA’s first major project.

CNA Dudelange © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

As a supreme recognition, the exhibition The Family of Man has been registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World list since 2003.

UNESCO and Luxembourg

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) founded after the Second World War is one of UNO’s specialised branches which aims at “building peace and security through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world without any distinction of race, sex, language or religion.” The UNESCO World Heritage includes several different programmes. It brings together a list of cultural and natural sites, documents and events – even intangible like traditions, dances, rites…-. All of them are considered exceptional and remarkable for the mankind and belong thus to humanity as a heritage to be preserved. In Luxembourg, the fortifications of Luxembourg city and its old quarters are part of the UNESCO World Heritage and the dancing procession of Echternach has been listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Family of Man is registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World list which aims at gathering the world documentary heritage. Lastly, since October 2020, the Minett has joined the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme and was labelled UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.


The exhibition at Clervaux Castle

Nowadays a permanent exhibition at Clervaux Castle, the collection The Family of Man is experiencing a real renaissance. Indeed, this unique complete version is displayed under optimal conditions in terms of conservation and lighting. The collection continues to attract and captivate visitors from all over the world, in the restored rooms of the castle, combining a contemporary approach and interpretation to the respect of its history.

Clervaux Castle

Built during the 12th century, Clervaux Castle is an imposing towered castle in the Luxembourgish Ardennes. Originally a fortified castle built by Gerard I, Count von Sponheim, it was progressively extended by its owners, then transformed by Claudine de Lannoy-d’Elts in a Renaissance style castle in 1635, until her descendants definitely left the castle in 1854 after a problem of inheritance. In 1888, the Count Adrien de Berlaimont, the new owner, demolished a part of the poultry-yard, giving it its present appearance. Destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, it was bought by the Luxembourg State, who restored it and transformed it into a place that houses now the offices of the municipal administration, a collection of models of Luxembourg's fortified castles, the Museum of the Battle of the Bulge and the exhibition The Family of Man by Edward Steichen.

© CNA/Romain Girtgen

Installation de l’exposition “The Family of Man” au Château de Clervaux © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

The always renewed interest in the exhibition mostly lies in Steichen’s ambitious project, in his strong willingness to create a universal approach of man, in an extraordinary scenography. It also relies on the presence of famous photographers as major figures of the 20th century whose works are nowadays internationally renowned such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank… This is how The Family of Man not only depicts life in the 1950s but also gives a valuable vision of post-war photography, revealing talents and bringing to light the qualities and flaws of photographic expression as a means of communication.

David Seymour, Orphan girls playing amid the ruins of their former orphanage, Monte Cassino, Latium, Italy, 1948 © Magnum Photos/UNESCO

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