Opinion: Understanding the A-bombing

What can supplement museum’s artifacts?

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

What happened in Hiroshima under the mushroom cloud 68 years ago on August 6? In addition to the accounts of survivors, items that belonged to victims and other artifacts from the atomic bombing as well as the writings of survivors help the younger generation find the answer to that question.

But there are almost no photographs of the city center that day, just several black-and-white photographs, including a few taken by the late Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun, at the Miyuki Bridge, 2.2 km from the hypocenter.

There are many drawings depicting the A-bombing, however. Starting in 1974 the Hiroshima bureau of NHK called on survivors to submit depictions of the A-bombing. These works colorfully recreate images that are etched in the memories of the survivors. The struggles these artists experienced are moving. Many of their works depict scenes from the day of the A-bombing. This artwork is stored at the Peace Memorial Museum, and some of it is on display there. It can also be seen on the museum’s website.

This art also provides information to fill in the blanks in the record of the A-bombing: people begging for water, bodies of people who died with their heads in fire cisterns, people forced to flee, leaving badly burned victims behind. This artwork helps people visualize oral and written accounts.

The three plastic mannequins in the Peace Memorial Museum play a similar role: burned skin hanging from their arms, they flee the devastation.

It has been decided that the mannequins will be removed when the museum’s displays are changed in connection with a major renovation of the museum’s main building and its east wing. Under a plan developed by a panel of experts, more use will be made of the facility’s tremendous number of artifacts. The fully renovated museum is scheduled to reopen in fiscal 2018.

The mannequins leave a strong impression on those who see them, and visitors often say their children were frightened by them. But questions have been raised about the removal of the mannequins with both the city and the Chugoku Shimbun. Some people have said that the mannequins are necessary to gain an understanding of what happened to the survivors and that people must look at this reality. Interest in the issue has been unexpectedly high.

One survivor said to me, “These injuries can’t be conveyed using real people. That’s why the museum has used the mannequins. Is there anything that can replace them?” This is an important question.

This is not the first time the pros and cons of displaying the mannequins have been debated.

The original wax replicas, which even replicated victims’ wounds, were first installed in the museum in 1973. Expressing a desire to convey the victims more realistically, the city replaced the mannequins that had been on display, which were clothed in actual clothing worn by victims.

According to an article published in the Chugoku Shimbun then, there were many objections to the installation of the mannequins, perhaps because at the time there were many people who had experienced the horrors of the A-bombing. Survivors and some residents protested that the museum should allow visitors to consider the A-bombing through actual materials from the bombing and that the mannequins did not accurately depict the terrible condition of victims.

The current plastic mannequins have been on display since 1991.

What about the museum’s plans for the future? Its director, Kenji Shiga, stressed that he would like the facility to focus on artifacts from the A-bombing and the personal effects of victims entrusted to it by their families. He said that the museum will make every effort to preserve the items in its collection, which are deteriorating, while exploring how to display them so that visitors can contemplate the stories behind the artifacts in a leisurely manner.

As the atomic bomb survivors age, there will be fewer and fewer people who can recount what they experienced that day. The museum will have a greater role to play as a place where visitors encounter objects that silently convey the destruction of the A-bombing and where they can learn the facts surrounding it.

But in reality, the entire Peace Memorial Park, including the museum, is a memorial to the victims and symbolizes Hiroshima’s dedication to the abolition of nuclear weapons and to peace. For that reason, people have differing expectations of the museum and its displays, and there is a diversity of opinions on what its place should be. These vary from person to person and change with the times and thus can’t be unified.

Making full use of its artifacts is a major premise of the museum as an educational facility. But there are elements of the A-bombing that cannot be depicted in that way, for example anger at this sin against humanity. How should these sorts of things be conveyed? The debate on the museum’s mannequins highlights other issues that must continue to be addressed.

(Originally published on April 4, 2013)