Renewal of exhibition space at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum provides compelling displays of A-bombed artifacts

by Junji Akechi, Staff Writer

Since the day it opened in 1955, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, located in Naka Ward, has been conveying to visitors how the U.S. attack with the atomic bomb devastated this city. The third large-scale renovation of the museum has been carried out with in-depth discussions on this project pursued by experts for eight and a half years. The focus of the exhibition space in the main building is now on authentic artifacts such as the personal belongings of A-bomb victims. The intention is to have visitors contemplate the victims as individuals so they can make a stronger emotional connection to them and grasp the tragic conditions of the A-bomb attack from a more personal perspective. After the main building reopens on April 25, what will the exhibition space actually look like? In this article, the Chugoku Shimbun offers an overview of the renewal.

With the theme of “Reality of the Atomic Bombing,” the exhibits in the main building are grouped into four sections, including a section titled “Devastation on August 6,” which conveys the true catastrophic conditions on the day of the bombing, and another section titled “Cries of the Soul,” which focuses on the suffering and tribulations of the victims, the victims’ families, and the survivors.

The exhibition space in the east building of the museum contains a substantial amount of information, mainly explanation about the city’s post-war reconstruction and global conditions involving nuclear weapons. In contrast to this, there is a more limited amount of explanation in the main building so that visitors will focus more fully on the artifacts themselves and the exhibits can thus move their emotions. The lighting of the space is restrained, without natural light from outside, in order to better preserve the artifacts while encouraging visitors to concentrate on these items.

The tour route through the museum now has visitors moving to the main building after viewing panoramic photos of the city, before and after the A-bomb attack, in the east building. The reasoning behind this is that, in the past, visitors with limited time to tour the museum would often move quickly through the main building, which featured the authentic artifacts from the bombing, because the route prior to the renovation first took them through the entire exhibition space of the east building.

The museum is also seeking to display the items in more effective ways so that visitors can better grasp what conditions in the city were like on the day of the atomic bombing. The section that shows these catastrophic conditions of August 6 is the first opportunity visitors have to view the authentic artifacts. Inside a large glass case in the center of this space are items linked to 23 students who had been mobilized for the war effort, helping to tear down homes to create a fire lane, and were killed in the attack. These items are deliberately displayed in a way that conveys the chaos of that time. Larger artifacts, such as a steel frame that was bent by the blast, are exhibited without enclosures and stand by the walls that surround the items from the students. This layout enables the actual damage done to human residents to emerge from the destruction of the city itself.

In the “Cries of the Soul” section, one of the main zones of the museum, there are photos of victims or victims with their family members placed beside the items with brief statements consisting of episodes or words, such as crying for water or the agony of blistering heat, linked to the victims during their lifetime, which have been provided by the bereaved families. These displays convey the agony of the dead and the anguish of the family members who were left behind.

Hironobu Ochiba, the curator, said, “The more time that passes, the more memories will fade. But love of family is something universal in any era. We’ve tried to create exhibits that will draw visitors in and enable them to feel the damage done by the atomic bombing as if they themselves experienced it.” The museum will pursue a policy of exchanging the artifacts on display every year or two in order to help preserve these items and to also honor the wish of victims’ families in wanting to show their loved ones’ belongings to as many people as possible.

Information in multiple languages will be provided at the museum to accommodate the many international visitors that are increasing in number, year by year. The text for exhibit explanations is written in both Japanese and English. When the museum reopens, Chinese, Korean, and French audio guides will be available, in addition to Japanese and English, and more language versions of this audio guide will be offered in the future. The museum will also provide a pamphlet in ten language versions, including Spanish and Italian.

Interview with Kenji Shiga, museum director

Creating the opportunity to think more deeply about the atomic bombing

The sweeping renewal of the Peace Memorial Museum emphasizes the use of authentic artifacts and exhibits that can appeal to the emotions of the viewer. At a time when the A-bomb survivors are growing old, with fewer people to talk about the actual conditions of the atomic bombing, what role is the museum seeking to play? The Chugoku Shimbun spoke to Kenji Shiga, the director of the museum. Below are excerpts from this interview with Mr. Shiga.

Since I assumed the post of museum director in 2013, I pondered the nature and purpose of the museum. It seemed to me that the museum should be very persistent in its efforts to convey just that one day in Hiroshima, the day of the atomic bombing.

As the director, I’ve had the chance to guide visitors through the museum and I’ve noticed the moving power of certain artifacts, like the charred lunchbox left behind by a mobilized student. People who have children stand frozen in front of it, as parents themselves, because a lunchbox evokes familiar feelings and they are moved to personally identify with what happened that day. They wonder when and where and who was forced to face this torture. Such memories, with the names of individuals attached to them, are able to convey what the atomic bomb took away.

Through the process of considering the contents for the new exhibition, we also discussed whether or not it was appropriate to display figures which depict people at the time of the bombing, which had previously been on display in the main building. Some people said they thought the figures made it easier for visitors to comprehend how cruel the atomic bombing really was. However, I wondered if it was acceptable for the museum to exhibit something as real when the actual survivors have said that the true conditions of the people at that time were even worse. What would happen in the future when no one is able to point such things out? So we want to be consistent about maintaining a policy for the exhibits that centers on authentic artifacts with actual names.

This new exhibition space will probably be the last renewal that the A-bomb survivors are able to see in person. Afterwards, the museum will be the only “storyteller” of the bombing, but I still wonder if this will really be enough. How will the people of Hiroshima be able to continue talking about the city’s A-bomb experience in the future, with a sense of ownership, when there are no actual A-bomb survivors left? This is the challenge that the people of Hiroshima are now facing, including our museum.

Why did such a thing happen? The museum isn’t the place where people can find the answer to that question. Rather, I think the museum poses that question to visitors and provides an opportunity for them to think more deeply about it. As soon as the museum reopens, we plan to start gauging whether the new exhibits are yielding the effect that we intended. I also believe it is vital for us to fulfill our role by enhancing other core functions of the museum, activities that include the collection of materials, investigations, and public awareness.

Overview of exhibition after renewal

East Building, Third Floor

Introductory Exhibit

Before visitors to the museum move to the main building, which is designed to provide a keen sense of the human damage wrought by the atomic bomb through displays of authentic artifacts, the tour route begins with an Introductory Exhibit in the east building. Through this Introductory Exhibit, visitors can gain an understanding of what the city of Hiroshima looked like before and after the atomic bombing. The use of computer graphics footage that runs one and a half minutes, projected onto a white model (five meters in diameter) which depicts the city center, shows how the lives of Hiroshima residents were instantly annihilated when the bomb exploded. And on the walls of this section are displayed large panoramic photographs of Hiroshima, contrasting the state of the city before and after the bombing.

The Dangers of Nuclear Weapons

Panels explain the history of the development and the dropping of the atomic bombs, a scientific look at the effects of radiation, and international conditions involving nuclear weapons, including the nuclear arms race. With regard to the movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, there is information on worldwide efforts to advance nuclear abolition, such as the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by the United Nations. In the center of the space is a “media table” with touch screens so that visitors can freely access more detailed information. There is also an area for watching videotaped footage of survivors describing their A-bomb experiences.

East Building, Second Floor

Hiroshima History

This section conveys the history of Hiroshima as a military city, the city’s reconstruction after the war, and the path of Hiroshima’s efforts to promote peace. Also introduced is the enactment of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law, which laid the foundation for the city’s recovery from the ruins, and the history of relief measures for A-bomb survivors. In addition, there is a description of Mayors for Peace, the global organization led by the City of Hiroshima. A “media table” is also situated in this section.

Main Building

Devastation on August 6

On display inside a large glass case are items that include scorched school uniforms and work pants, a water bottle, and a lunch box. These items were the belongings of students who were mobilized to work for the war effort on the day of the atomic bombing by helping to tear down homes to create a fire lane. In order to highlight each artifact, the curators explored various layouts and methods. Smaller items, such the water bottle and a purse, have been featured by placing them on thin platforms.

On the walls along the route are displayed photos of A-bomb survivors who suffered burns in the attack as well as drawings of the bombing made by survivors. During the process of determining the contents of the exhibition, the importance of these drawings was often mentioned because there are few photographs that show the aftermath of the bombing and the drawings depict conditions at that time such as people fleeing from flames and the bodies of victims. The exhibition also makes use of other photos that can supplement the “uncertainty” of the drawings, which were made from the memories of survivors. The lighting for each item on display has been fine-tuned so that, for instance, the shadows of a black-and-white photos are accentuated or the color of blood or flames in another drawing are made more vivid.

Cries of the Soul

In this section, the artifacts are each held in a separate glass case, sealed tight. Words from the victim or family members accompany the item so that visitors will reflect on the life of the person who perished in the atomic bombing and the anguish of the family that was left behind.

Some items which had been on display in the east building are now exhibited in this section, including the charred tricycle known as “Shin-chan’s tricycle.” It once belonged to A-bomb victim Shinichi Tetsutani, who was three at the time of the bombing, and was later donated to the museum by Shinichi’s father, Nobuo Tetsutani. Clothing like shirts and blouses, scorched or stained with blood, are shown on slanting display stands so that visitors can imagine the victims standing erect and wearing this clothing before they lost their lives.

A new exhibit is also in place which focuses on the non-Japanese people who experienced the atomic bombing, including Korean A-bomb survivors, students from Southeast Asia who were attending the Hiroshima University of Literature and Science (the forerunner of Hiroshima University) on government scholarships, and German priests at the Noboricho Church in Naka Ward.

Damage from Radiation

In this section, the inhumane effects of radiation, on top of the massive destruction produced by the bomb blast, are conveyed through items like photos of people suffering from acute symptoms of radiation sickness, such as hair loss and vomiting blood, as well as A-bomb drawings, records of health conditions, and other materials.

To Live

This section spotlights the hardships faced by the survivors after the war ended, including children who became orphans as a result of the bombing; the lonely plight of elderly survivors; and those born with A-bomb microcephaly due to prenatal exposure to the bomb’s radiation. The exhibits include a photo of Sadako Sasaki, who died of A-bomb-induced leukemia 10 years after the bombing, and some of the paper cranes she folded. There is also a series of photographs, titled “Collapse of N Family,” which were taken by the late photographer Kikujiro Fukushima, who followed one family for around a decade and tracked their disintegration as a result of the aftereffects of the atomic bombing and the poverty they suffered.


In this space, which offers benches, visitors can look out on the Peace Memorial Park after concluding their tour of the exhibits in the main building. Displayed on the wall are aerial photos of the former Nakjima district, which originally existed on this land and today lies beneath the park. These photos were taken before and after the atomic bombing and are accompanied by a panel which provides a restored map of the former Nakjima district so that visitors are made aware that the whole park area was a place where people lived prior to the A-bomb attack.

With regard to the Nakajima district, the City of Hiroshima has been pursuing an exploratory excavation of the area with the intention of opening some remains to the public by the end of fiscal year 2020. The advisory committee that discussed the renewal of the museum’s exhibition space has requested that a link be created between these remains and the exhibits within the museum. One committee member said that it is important to make use of the excavated remains in some way so that visitors will understand that a neighborhood once existed at the site of the museum.

Computer graphics film provides simulation experience

The museum has also created a three-minute film, made with computer graphics, that offers the viewer a simulation experience of the new exhibits in the main building, as if walking through the exhibition space.

The film starts from the hallway area of the east building then moves to the main building. It shows the first exhibit there, a photo of a girl standing in the A-bomb ruins, followed by two enlarged photos which reveal the harrowing conditions faced by the city’s residents on that day. These photographs were taken by the late Yoshito Matsushige, who was a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun at that time.

The film includes images of visitors to the museum, men and women of all ages, and enables the viewer to grasp the layout of the exhibition space and the actual size of the exhibits. By watching this film, the viewer can take a virtual tour of each section of the main building, including “Devastation on August 6” and “Cries of the Souls” before reaching the Gallery, where the exhibits in the main building end.

(Originally published on March 20, 2019)