Vista da exposição "Familia da humanidade" no MoMA.

The Family of Man

Ruben Pater
17 Jun 2020, 3:59 pm

Some Cultures are Bigger than Others

Culture naturally moves across borders, but not all in equal measure. From the 1600s until the 1900s it was the Western European culture that declared itself superior, while other cultures were classified as being in earlier or less developed stages. Culture was seen as evolutionary, with the Western European culture at the top.

Anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) questioned this evolutionary idea of culture. He argued that culture develops through the interaction of people and ideas, and there is no process towards a ‘higher’ stage of culture. He argued that other cultures cannot be objectively judged, since we see them through the lens of our own culture.

Ideas of the evolution of culture have largely been abandoned, but centuries of cultural dominance and colonization have left their trace, making white culture the reference point for art, ideas, science, and language, as argued by Robert Young in Postcolonialism.

In the cold war the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. used media to ‘invade’ countries’—not with weapons but with culture, hoping that citizens would succumb to their politics. Some cultural critics have argued that even Disney characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse have been used in Latin America for political purposes. The idea was that innocent cultural characters, such as those in cartoons, could subconsciously assimilate people to U.S. political ideas.

Cross-cultural communication itself became a tool of cold war politics. In 1965, a U.S. Foreign Affairs committee spoke about the importance of anthropological research: ‘The role of the behavioral sciences—what they can tell us about human attitudes and motivations, and how this knowledge can be applied to governmental undertakings designed to carry out the foreign policy of the United States—has been of keen interest to our subcommittee.’

Above: Exhibition view of "The Family of Man" at MoMA.

Young, Robert. Postcolonialism. Oxford University Press, 2003. 2-3.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2001. 322.

Osgood, C.E., May. et al. Cross-cultural Universals of Affective Meaning. University of Illinois Press, 1975. 8.

Vista da exposição "A família da humanidade", no MoMA.

Exhibition view of "The Family of Man" at MoMA.

Fotografia por Nat Farbman presente na exposição "A família da humanidade".
Fotografia por Nina Leen presente na exposição "A família da humanidade".

Photo by Nat Farbman exhibited at "The Family of Man".

Photo by Nina Leen exhibited at "The Family of Man".

The Family of Man

In the years after World War II, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were using every means imaginable to convince other countries of their ideological superiority, even art exhibitions. One of these exhibitions was The Family of Man, a photography exhibition that became one of the first blockbusters, with over nine million visitors in eight years.

The exhibition was an idea by Edward Steichen, head of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. He wanted to create a testament of unity, equality, and freedom for all people on earth. 503 photographs were selected from 69 countries, covering categories like birth, love, work, disease, and death.

The exhibition was new in its kind because it showed photography not as art, but as documentation. Steichen believed that photography could convey information as a universal language that all cultures could understand. The photographs were shown without any context— only the name of the photographer and the location was mentioned The selection was anything but objective. Sixty percent of the photographers were from the U.S. and twenty-six percent from Europe. The photographs did not show any same-sex or interracial couples, emphasizing the importance of the traditional family. The two photos on the left both depict families. The African family on the left is depicted in a rural setting, outside, while the family from the U.S. is depicted indoors with family photos on the wall. They are both a ‘family of man’, but one is obviously ‘developed’ and one is not.

The World Tour

After its opening in 1955, the The Family of Man went on a world tour with the MoMA international programme. For eight years the exhibition visited eighty-eight venues in thirty-seven countries on six continents. Many locations were developing countries where the U.S. had vested interests. Art, politics, and corporate interests went hand-in-hand during the tour. The entrance of the Johannesburg exhibition featured a large globe surrounded by Coca-Cola bottles. In Guatemala, the exhibition was shown only fourteen months after a U.S. backed coup had overthrown the democratically-elected government. A junta was put in charge that protected U.S. corporate interests.


This Exhibition Was Brought to You by the CIA

The foreign showings of the exhibition were organized by the MoMA international programme and the United States Information Agency (USIA), a government agency that spread U.S. political ideas using culture. The MoMA international programme had ties to the CIA, and had been involved before in using culture as propaganda, demonstrated by Eva Cockcroft in Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War.

The Family of Man promoted the values of the West by showing that freedom and the inclusion of all cultures and religions was an alternative to the closed and strict ideology offered by the Soviets. The USIA felt that audiences were more receptive to the message if they did not recognize it as propaganda. The millions that visited the The Family of Man exhibition were under the impression this was a normal photography exhibition about the universal values of humanity.

The Family of Man was one of the most popular exhibitions ever staged, and in 2003 it was awarded a UNESCO status in recognition of its historic value. It is on permanent display in Luxembourg.

Hartmann, Celia. ‘Edward Steichen Archive: The 55th Anniversary of The Family of Man’, November 17, 2010.

Sekula, Allan. ‘The Traffic in Photographs’. Art Journal Vol. 41, No. 1, 1981. 20-21.

Cockcroft, Eva. ‘Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War’. In: Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. Harper & Row, 1985. 125.


This text is an excerpt from the book Policies of Design (published in Brazil by Ubu Editora, 2020).


Ruben Pater is a designer. He was born in Gouda, the Netherlands, in 1977. He graduated in graphic design at the Akademie voor Kunst en Vormgeving, St. Joost, in Breda, the Netherlands, in 2000. In 2012, he completed his master’s degree at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Under the pseudonym of Untold Stories, Pater creates visual narratives that deal with solidarity, justice and equality.

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