Peace Memorial Museum, Hiroshima
I recently spent two weeks travelling around Japan. We hopped from Tokyo to Kyoto, Sapporo, Koyasan and Hiroshima. Japan is full of exciting things to do – food, Shinto shrines, vending machines, digital loos, anime, bullet trains, gardens, capsule hotels – to name just a few. However, Museums were top of the list for me and I managed to drag my traveling companions to one pretty much every other day.
My overall impression of Japanese museums was excellent. They’re well-funded, carefully conceived with clear missions, provocative design, and great objects. I plan to write them all up, but for now want to talk about the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The Museum was established in 1955 (and renovated in 1991) to tell the story of the atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima on 6th August, 1945. The bomb, dropped by US troops, killed over 100,000 people. The Museum serves as both a memorial to the victims and a promoter of Peace.
The building itself looks a bit like a war-bunker on stilts. The entrance is clinical and simple. There’s nothing about the content in the ticket hall or cafe. The East Wing was under renovation when we visited so the below is only about the West wing. The East will deal with Hiroshima the city before the bomb dropped and the lead up to nuclear war.
The West Wing details the effects of the atomic bomb on both the city and people. I’ve kept my description very brief as I can’t really do it justice here. You have to see it yourself. Think of this as a taster and a motivator to visit.
The museum is horrific. By horrific, I mean a graphic exploration of all the effects of dropping a nuclear bomb. I’m not going to write a history lesson about Hiroshima, or give you all the gory details. If you don’t know, read about it
Walking into the West Gallery, you’re immediately thrust into the midst of that day. They don’t hold back with the design, the objects or the text. Setworks depict the immediate aftermath of the bomb hitting. The design structures are functionally grey, the objects numerous and powerful and the text simple and punchy.
The first major installation is a large map of Hiroshima. It shows where the bomb dropped and the scale of devastation it wreaked. Interpretation around the map gives you the key facts and figures – how many died, how many children … Each fact hits home.The narrative then follows the physical effects of the bomb – on humans and the city – over space and time. I haven’t posted some of the more gruesome pictures for obvious reasons. The majority of the objects are personal possession from the victims.
I noticed there was no music or soundscape at all. I thought a brave choice by the exhibition team and very effective. With no sound to comfort the visitor or cushion the experience, it was raw and hard.
The poignant and famous story of Sadako Sasaki is prominent. A toddler when the bomb dropped, she suffered radioactive poisoning. Years later, she had leukemia, but fought every day to live. She heard about a legend that said she would be granted a wish if she folded a thousand paper cranes. Planning to wish for her life she set about folding. Sadly, her wish was not granted and she passed away age 12. Today she is one of the the most widely known hibakusha — a Japanese term meaning “bomb-affected person”. Children continue to make paper cranes and leave them at the Children’s Peace Monument in the park.
The second half of the museum focussed largely on the science of nuclear warfare. It was a little odd after such powerfully human stories, but I think deliberately done to help you cope.
I was impressed with how they handled the potential political messaging. There was no blame or hate towards American troops. Instead, the focus was purely on the innocent victims of the bombing and reminders of the devastation of war.