Restorying is seeing ourselves as intrinsically connected through our shared human experiences across time, borders, and boundaries; the pain and suffering of violence and the longing for peace and security. Restorying is about raising questions and collectively writing a new story grounded in our common humanity. Viewing material objects can allow us to do that. And at the same time, the politics of material witnessing can be complicated and controversial. Through the different images and critic comments, it is this connection and complexity that the exhibit seeks to bring to the viewer.
The year 2020 is the 75th year of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As curators, our hope is to commemorate the event differently by creating a place-based memorialization of the event here in the United States. The time felt right for restorying the past in a new way. We didn’t know at the time that the current pandemic would push us to conceptualize this space virtually in ways we hadn’t imagined.
We invite you to view the exhibition on its own through the voices of our image-makers, comments from invited critics and Material Witnesses and the Politics of Peace commentary by Vivian Shaw, Sociologist, PhD of Harvard University. We are grateful for the support of the Hiroshima Foundation, Nagasaki Foundation, and the Gravestar Foundation in curating this virtual exhibit.
—Curators, Meenakshi Chhabra, Kazuyo Kubo, Isabelle Olsson and Kristina Lamour Sansone
Watch the Exhibit
We invite you to watch this exhibit and reflect on the questions that are raised for you, the personal connections that you see with these images, and the stories that emerge, as we collectively imagine restorying this past for the future generations.
What do you see? What feelings do the images evoke for you? What connections, if any, can you make with the people, place, and objects from you contexts (family, community, or country)? What questions come up for you?
Meenakshi Chhabra, Interim Associate Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences; Director, International Higher Education Program; Fulbright Senior Scholar, Fulbright Peace & Conflict Specialist, & Fulbright Global Scholar
Kazuyo Kubo, Associate Professor, Social Sciences Division, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Lauren Bond | Mneesha Gellman | Taeko Gupta | Gal Harmat | Wendy Anne Kopisch | Cindy Maguire | Daniel Moses | Beatrice Mutasah | Ajay Noronha | Beena Sarwar | Vivian Shaw | Michael Talbot
Mneesha Gellman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emerson College, and the Director of the Emerson Prison Initiative. Find her most recent publication about fieldwork and Covid-19.
Taeko Gupta is a rising junior at UMass Amherst studying journalism and communication studies.
Dr. Gal Harmat, UN University for Peace, Kibbutzim College of Education, is a gender and intersectional pedagogy expert. Her research is about rethinking collective memory and education by mapping alternative monuments and sculptures in the public sphere.
Wendy Anne Kopisch
Wendy Anne Kopisch is a publications manager of the Georg Arnhold Program on Education for Sustainable Peace. She has a PhD in German literature and is based at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Brunswick, Germany.
Cindy Maguire, PhD is the Director of ArtsAction Group, an international community-based collective of art educators, art therapists, artist teachers, and educators committed to facilitating arts and education initiatives with children and youth in conflict-affected communities. She is a professor and Director of the BFA Art & Design Education at Adelphi University.
Daniel Moses is the Director of the Educator Program with Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit committed to promoting peace through education and dialogue.
Beatrice Mutasah '19 studied animation at Lesley's College of Art & Design. Beatrice participated in Lesley's travel course to Japan as a student in 2016 and as a teaching assistant in 2019.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, artist, and filmmaker from Pakistan who focuses on human rights, gender, media, and peace.
Vivian Shaw is a College Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University and the Lead Researcher (co-PI) for the AAPI COVID-19 Project, a multi-method investigation into the impact of the pandemic on the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She earned her PhD in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin with graduate portfolios in Asian American Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies.
Ajay Noronha is a cinematographer/filmmaker turned visual arts facilitator. His passion is to increase the understanding of the intersection between self-growth, image, and envisioning.
Michel Talbot studied illustration, design, and animation at Lesley's College of Art & Design. Michael is an independent illustrator and teaches at Lesley. He participated in the travel course in Japan as a student in 2016 and as a teaching assistant in 2017 and 2018.
- Image Makers
Commentary from Critic Vivian Shaw
Read on for special commentary from Vivian Shaw, PhD Harvard University
Material Witnesses and the Politics of Peace
Material Witnesses and the Politics of Peace, Vivian Shaw, PhD Harvard University
Material witnesses have long occupied a central focus within public commemorations of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the context of Hiroshima, this category of artifacts includes burned and shredded clothing worn by victims of the bomb, charred lunch and snuff tins, an incinerated tricycle, fragments of warped roofing, and even pieces of victims’ nails and skin. The primary focus of the museum’s Main Building, and with many more kept in their archives, material witnesses offer testimonies beyond words of the inhumane destruction from the atomic bombings. Yet despite, or perhaps precisely because of, their power to foster empathy and feelings of shared humanity, Hiroshima’s material witnesses have generated controversy since the museum’s founding in 1955.
As Scandura (2015) points out, the language of material witnesses borrows from “a legal term that refers to a person who possesses information alleged to be relevant in a criminal proceeding” (150).[i] Unlike witnesses who can speak, Hiroshima’s material witnesses communicate the inhumanity of nuclear violence through the physical absence of the human victim. The tattered shirt of Nobuko Oshita, a thirteen-year old girl and first year high school student, speaks on her behalf precisely because, in her death, she is unable to do so for herself. The shape of her uniform creates a visual narrative of Noboku’s death—in its frayed physical appearance, it locates the side of her body where she suffered most from burns.
Yet material witnesses do more than preserve the visceral traces of suffering—they also testify to a crime. Identifying the perpetrators, however, is a fraught endeavor for the museum as neither the U.S. nor Japan have an easy path towards claiming innocence. In her groundbreaking book Hiroshima Traces, Yoneyama’s provides the important concept of nuclear universalism,“[t]he idea that Hiroshima’s disaster ought to be remembered from the transcendent and anonymous position of humanity” (15) [ii] underscores how memorialization of Hiroshima has happened alongside “the forgetting of the history of colonialism and racism in the region” (12).[iii] At the same time that Hiroshima’s message of global peace taps into undeniably admirable human values, it also emerges out of a complicated relationship between two former or current empires that have yet to offer satisfactory reconciliation around historical violence or remedy for enduring global inequalities.
The museum has continually navigated a delicate balance of simultaneously advancing a message of peace that has practical implications for global nuclear nonproliferation and avoiding risking a diverse range of visitors, governmental partners, and funders. From its early days, officials from the American Culture Center, an institution established by the U.S. State Department during the post-war occupation, reported being overwhelmed with complaints by American tourists who determined that displays in the museum were too traumatic and “aimed at shaming America” (122). Visitors interpreted the museum’s focus on material witnesses, alongside its limited historical discussion, as manipulative—a provocation of sympathy lacking a thoughtful reckoning of Japan’s own perpetration of violence. The museum’s subsequent renovations have attempted to resolve this criticism. In 1991, in anticipation of the city’s hosting of the 1994 Asia Games, the museum began a major renovation to add a new wing, calling it the “East Building,” which would serve as its new point of entrance. Such renovations, completed in 1994 were, according to an official involved with the museum, aimed to make the space more inclusive for international tourists.[iv] The museum had in mind an influx of South Korean and Chinese visitors, many of whom were expected to arrive in the city for the games. As the same administrator told me, the museum wanted to create a welcoming space that, by offering a history-conscious view of the lead up to the atomic bombings, communicated that Hiroshima’s victims were not the only victims of wartime violence. Museum curators also worked to make the museum accessible for English-speakers, employing bilingual translators to write captions for each display in both Japanese and English.[v] The museum also interspersed multi-language video consoles throughout the East Building, and made available rental audio devices in multiple languages. Despite its efforts to accommodate international tourists, however, this renovation was controversial. In an article for The New York Times in 1990, Steven R. Weisman documented how the museum yielded to right-wing Japanese nationalist pressures by avoiding inclusion of an exhibit on Japanese wartime aggression.[vi]
At the same time that the 1994 renovation addressed many earlier criticisms, it also produced a spatial disjuncture that could be confusing for tourists. Visitors ranged from describing feeling “bored” by the flat, explanatory tone of historical exhibits in the East Building to unprepared and overloaded by seeing material witnesses upon entering the Main Building. The administrator I interviewed, aware of this mixed reception, bemoaned what he saw as a regrettable misconception that the Main Building was the “second half” of the museum. Material witnesses, in facts, embodied the very purpose of the museum.[vii] In an English newsletter announcing its reopening following its second major renovation, then planned for 2018, the museum drew attention to what it deemed as problematic viewing practices by tourists. Citing surveys and other studies conducted by a committee of academics, atomic bomb survivors, and others, the museum revealed that visitors typically spent over two thirds of their time in the East Building.[viii] They concluded that ,“Inadequate time is being spent on viewing the exhibits in the Main Building, which form the core of the museum and convey the actual damage from the atomic bombing.” Their renovation would make the material witnesses a bigger focus of the museum, including re-routing tourists through the Main Building and a dramatic overhaul of the East Building to integrate interactive media.
In 1990, Akihiro Takahashi, then a director of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, commented on how Hiroshima is co-opted by “both sides” for political purposes, stating, “We have to rise above this sort of partisanship in order to abolish nuclear weapons in the world.”[ix] I agree with this vision of abolishing nuclear weapons, but I also question that moments in history—let alone those of spectacular violence—can ever be untangled from politics. Nor do I think they should. Although peace is a value that resonates globally, it is neither apolitical nor universal. Instead, it is molded through complex negotiations of power and in the service of a plurality of interests that are frequently in conflict with one another. Part of this process of working towards a more critical understanding of peace, in my view, is to remind ourselves that individuals and their governments are not one and the same and, moreover, that there is a gulf of power between them. Doing so might enable us to follow the empathies that emerge when we see material witnesses to remember that victims do not become such simply in an isolated and tragic moment but within a broader calculus that frequently sacrifices human lives in the service of power.
[i] Scandura, Jani. “The Horror of Details: Obsolescence and Annihilation in Miyako Ishiuchi’s Photography of Atomic Bomb Artifacts,” in Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age, ed. Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 150.
[ii] Yoneyama, Lisa. Hiroshima Traces Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 15.
[iii] Ibid, 12
[iv] Anonymous museum official, interview, 2014.
[vi] Weisman, Steven R. “At Atomic Shrine, All the Horror, Nothing of Guilt,” The New York Times, Apr 19, 1990.
[vii] Anonymous museum official, interview, 2014.
[viii] Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Curatorial Division. “Complete Renovation of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum,” Peace Culture English Newsletters 7, http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/hpcf/english/ (Accessed August 1, 2015).
[ix] Weisman, Steven R. “At Atomic Shrine, All the Horror, Nothing of Guilt,” The New York Times, Apr 19, 1990.