Thousands of volunteers dressed in white will lay a million papier mache, clay and plaster “bones” on the Mall on Saturday morning to call attention to genocides and mass atrocities around the world. Organizers of the project, who have been collecting handcrafted bones from across the country for the past three years, call the three-day art installation a “collaborative site of conscience to honor victims and survivors.” They also say it will serve as a “visual petition against ongoing conflicts” in places such as Sudan, Somalia and Burma in addition to being a call for action.

One Million Bones is an Albuquerque-based social arts practice — a medium for artists in which the experience of participating is part of the art. A lot of the bones were made by children, said Naomi Natale, an installation artist and photographer who founded One Million Bones in 2009. They “were called upon to build a mass grave as a reminder of this promise we made of ‘never again’ that we failed to deliver on. I hope that it will be a powerful statement to all of us of the importance of these issues.”

Natale said she got the idea in 2004 after reading the book “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families,” an account of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Two years earlier, she’d worked on “The Cradle Project,” an installation art project featuring handmade cradles from around the world to call attention to children orphaned from disease and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. “I came to understand how powerful art was as a tool to bring these issues that are very far away close to home emotionally,” she said.

The bones were fashioned over the past three years through grass-roots outreach efforts and “bone-making events,” said Kathleen McEuen, a national organizer. “Volunteers would go into different schools and talk about issues to age-appropriate levels.” Groups made bones, stored them and laid them locally. There were 35 smaller-scale installations in 34 state capitals in the past few years. Preview installations of 50,000 bones occurred in Albuquerque in 2011 and last year in New Orleans.

Bones for the D.C. installation were shipped to the New Mexico headquarters and other hubs around the country. UPS transported the bones to the Washington area freight locations where they were stored. Boxes comprising 16 sections of 62,500 bones were delivered to the Mall on Thursday morning. Volunteers from around the country will begin laying them down starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, McEuen said. The schedule, which includes speakers, workshops and meetings on Capitol Hill, concludes with a reclaiming of the bones Monday afternoon.

Fifty-thousand bones laid in Albuquerque, New Mexico in August 28th, 2011, for the One Million Bones campaign. (Sophia Eleftheriou)

Natale said she initially didn’t realize the power of the bones project as an educational tool. “I didn’t realize how many adults didn’t understand what genocide was, let alone that it’s happening today.” The subject matter can be “paralyzing and overwhelming,” Natale said, but the “act of crafting a bone becomes very important because it’s an action. With an issue this intense, it’s so important that there’s an action at the end.”

One Million Bones

The project begins at 10 a.m. Saturday on the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW and runs through Monday.