Editorial: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum reopens after major renovations, assuming more important role in conveying A-bomb tragedy

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has renewed its exhibition space for the first time in 25 years. Following the renovation of the east building, which was completed two years ago, the renovation of the main building is now also complete. With this renewal, the museum has strengthened its ability to convey the tragedy of the atomic bombing. As the A-bomb survivors grow older, and opportunities to directly hear their stories continue to dwindle, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum will assume an even more vital role.

Museum should continually review its exhibits

The exhibition space of the main building has been redesigned and now puts a greater focus on the personal belongings of A-bomb victims so that visitors can look closely at each item and feel an emotional response. Moving forward, the museum should continually review the exhibits to assess whether they have the kind of impact on viewers that will kindle a keener desire for a world free of nuclear weapons.

The idea behind the new displays, which is based on discussions by an advisory committee of experts over the course of nine years, is to convey the devastation of the atomic bombing from the point of view of the victims and survivors. Horrific photos taken in the aftermath of the bombing are now displayed alongside drawings of the devastation made by survivors, a symbolic blend of images which highlights the feelings of the A-bomb survivors who witnessed these sights. The section “Cries of the Soul,” which shares the personal effects of A-bomb victims, along with photos of these victims and their family members and some background explanation, can encourage visitors to consider each victim that was under the bomb’s mushroom cloud that day.

On the whole, the museum has sought to keep explanatory text to a minimum, wanting visitors to reflect for themselves on the catastrophic consequences of the atomic bombing as they look closely at each artifact. What people finally take away from the exhibition is largely up to each individual.

For instance, the first items that visitors see in the main building are the clothing and other personal belongings of the students who had been mobilized to work for the war effort and were exposed to the atomic bomb. They have been placed in a large glass case that is surrounded by larger items, like a bent iron frame and gravestones, that were also exposed to the bomb. In this way, the museum wants visitors to feel as if they are at the scene of the devastation on August 6, 1945. However, they are shown this early on in the tour route and it is unclear if people will feel what the museum intends. The reactions of visitors need to be carefully confirmed.

Museum and memorial hall must work hand in hand

Because the renewed exhibits provide less written explanation, some visitors may want to know more about the thoughts of the survivors. Nearby the museum is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which collects A-bomb related information and materials, like accounts of the bombing and videos of the survivors telling their stories, and makes these available to the public. It is important that the museum and the memorial hall work more closely together and clearly distinguish their respective roles.

The museum also includes a new permanent exhibit that shares the A-bomb experiences of non-Japanese nationals, including Koreans and students from Southeast Asia. This exhibit conveys the fact that the atomic bomb impacted a range of innocent people, regardless of their nationality.

In the last fiscal year, the museum received roughly 1.52 million visitors, and about 30 percent of this total were from the international community. The proportion of visitors from abroad has been rising year by year. Among the overseas visitors, those from Europe and the United States stand out. In China and other Asian countries, there is a tendency to believe that the appeal from the A-bombed cities is an exaggeration of Japan’s wartime damage. This is partly why fewer people visit the museum from Asian nations. We need to address this misunderstanding so that the museum can receive a wider range of people from abroad.

As citizens of Hiroshima, we should now pay another visit to the museum and consider whether the renewed exhibition holds an effective appeal for people around the world. Seventy-four years have passed since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. There are now fewer opportunities to hear about what happened directly from the A-bomb survivors. And there are fewer A-bombed buildings left, making it difficult to recall what the atomic bomb has done.

Rejecting all forms of nuclear technology

The renewed exhibition also focuses on the post-war lives of the A-bomb survivors, with the hardships and lasting grief that they faced. Those of us who live in the present have a responsibility to learn about the A-bomb experience and inherit the memories of Hiroshima. In this way, the Peace Memorial Museum is a important place of learning for the people of Hiroshima, too.

In 1956, a year after it opened, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum became the venue for the Atoms for Peace Exhibition. Because Hiroshima experienced the disaster of the atomic bombing, the idea of making productive use of nuclear energy for “peace” began to grow among the people of the A-bombed city. If we regret following that trend of the time, we must now take a tough stance toward all forms of nuclear technology. By doing so, we will help pave the way for a world without nuclear weapons.

The wax mannequins that were displayed in the museum for many years, as depictions of A-bomb survivors wandering through the devastated city in the aftermath of the atomic bombing, are no longer part of the exhibition. While the museum is now pursuing a policy of using authentic artifacts in its exhibits, there remains no definitive answer as to what sort of display can best convey the catastrophic conditions of the atomic bombing on human beings. As the advisory committee proposed, the museum should establish another committee that will continue to discuss the contents and impact of the exhibition.

(Originally published on April 25, 2019)