The United Nations

The museology of world peace

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Custom stamps from the UN

If the coffee in the lobby was any indicator of what was to come, we knew we were headed for unsavory times. We had both played hooky from work that morning and shelled out ten dollars to be enlightened as to the secrets of the United Nations’ gracefully monolithic Le Corbusier/Oscar Niemeyer–designed headquarters in New York City. Beset by scandal, financially strapped and its relevance questioned by the US’s shameless hijacking of the world order, our visit was an expression of solidarity, not to mention an act of curiosity.

Chucking our coffee cups in the waste bin in unison, we moved on to the waiting area to listen for our tour number. Behind a raised glass promontory was an elaborate operation reminiscent of “central command” organizing the litany of assembled tourists. In spite of badges, navy blazers and walkie-talkies, they looked as mystified as we did when number 7 was spastically called out before number 6 (our group). Nearby, a sign ominously read “NO BATHROOMS ON TOUR” (after the aforementioned coffee, plainly reason for alarm).

To distract ourselves from the fear that number 6 would be eternally lost, we looked at two “lobby exhibitions” of interest. On one wall hung a series of hand-woven silk carpets, each bearing the face of a former Secretary General of the venerable institution, from dashing Dag Hammarskjöld to current boss Kofi Annan. Both authors were excited by this manifestation of vernacular craft (and admit to a considerable crush on the latter Secretary General; he does look hot on a carpet). Upon closer inspection, we learned that these carpets were in fact gifts from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Forget the adjoining bronze bust from Swaziland; getting one’s face woven into a carpet seems the ultimate gesture of goodwill and internationalism. Go Iran. Incidentally, we agreed that the international community should really lay off on all that unpleasant nuclear business.

Also in the lobby was a temporary exhibition of “atomic art,” the work of self-proclaimed “atomic artist” Tony Price, now deceased. The mustachioed southwestern sculptor fashioned totemic masks from defunct bomb parts. May Tony rest in peace confident that the photographic portrait of him in the lobby is one of the most awesome spectacles in the UN. The artist is pictured in a director’s chair before a ham-fisted mural of a mushroom cloud, facing gravely back over his shoulder at the viewer through aviator glasses. In a chilling twist, Tony’s gaze is obstructed; the lenses of his glasses are each painted opaquely to mirror the mushroom cloud image behind him! without a doubt the most fantastically bizarre plea for peace we have ever witnessed — but nonetheless the most effective of the morning.

We snapped out of our atomic trance with the call for our tour and met our perky guide. His name may or may not have been Steven, but we dubbed him Brandt all the same (he was a dead ringer for the obsequious-yet-informative assistant from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski). As Brandt began lecturing his way through a gigantic graphic of “Mr Annan” on the wall and “sweeping views of the various halls” (that’s a quote), we marveled at a tiny woman following him about, holding a tiny microphone up to his mouth. Brandt explained that she was a documentary filmmaker from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who would accompany us. That her documentary was tentatively entitled_ The Decay of the UN_ would prove a harbinger of things to come.

En route to the General Assembly, Brandt led us through the disarmament exhibition, where we learned that the entire UN budget is one quarter of that for the proposed Jets Stadium. Here we also spotted an enormous poster picture of actor Michael Douglas do-gooding in UN garb (doubtless somewhere in Africa). Why bother with him, we wondered, when we already have Angelina Jolie? (Neither of us had really blinked when Glenn Close tried to hack Douglas to pieces in Fatal Attraction.) Ruminating on the potential of celebrities to be goodwill ambassadors, we wondered aloud if we should just give up the charade and make Bono an honorary Nobel laureate. And beyond running about the UN building in the reverential The Interpreter, didn’t Sean Penn go to Iraq?

Before we could ask our knowledgeable guide, we passed through the uneventful Security and Economic Council, finally reaching the would-be pièce de résistance: the General Assembly.

The hall’s pale blue chairs had lost their gleam, scuffed up by years of fidgety diplomatia. The translating devices affixed to the armrests were missing a button or two — or missing entirely, as if to say, “Never mind, Arabic will work just as well as Chinese.” Apparently the planned renovation (dubbed “Capital Master Plan 2008”) has its work cut out. We did however ponder the graphic amoeba-esque wall murals in pinks and turquoises as well as scads of gold piping. Its unrestrained style (if this room were created today, we could count on tactics of bland intimidation) and tattered, mid-century grandiosity brought on a strong sense of UN nostalgia (albeit one credited solely to the decor). Some trivia we bet you didn’t know: The seating arrangement in the Assembly rotates every year by lottery. This year, it’s St. Vincent and the Grenadines sitting right up front.

Beyond the General Assembly, we were barred entrance to the Security Council chambers despite repeated brandishing of our press credentials. We were, however, invited to voyeuristically peer inside through the door crack — where nothing of import seemed to be happening anyway. A deforestation conference? Sierra Leone? We wanted Big Issues — throw us a little opium trafficking, damn it — but that is only for the deluxe axis of evil tour, it seems. Instead, Brandt moved us right along and explained that traffic safety had finally made the agenda of the UN. More people die in car accidents than in wars every year, apparently. The UN should really quit fumbling around with peacekeeping and get proper street signage!

The tour petered out through a few more halls displaying gifts from various nations (presents as bizarre as atomic art). We must admit that the children’s tour seemed far more fun than ours. More than once we longingly eavesdropped on the animated descriptions and promise of an end-of-tour ice cream and pin.

Hoping for some memento of our less than momentous morning, we paid fourteen bucks to get our pictures printed on an official UN stamp back in the lobby. Although the camera was digital, the technician refused our ardent requests for retakes. Categorically. On the resultant stamp, one of us came out looking decidedly feline, the other quite like what we imagine Mr. Spock’s daughter would look life if he had (blonde) offspring. And only later did we find out that the stamp is only valid if mailed from UN premises. Now they tell us. Nontheless, we know the UN has known finer moments, and we won’t give up on it just yet.