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Los Alamos museum decides against Japanese A-bomb exhibit

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct a word in a quote from Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group. Comment from museum officials in Japan also has been added,  from the Associated Press.

SANTA FE – The leadership of the Los Alamos History Museum has decided against hosting a Japanese exhibition on the history of the U.S. bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki over concerns about its presentation about abolishing nuclear weapons.

Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan said that, contrary to a Saturday report in the English-language Japan Times newspaper, her museum in the town where nuclear weapons were first developed never had official plans to host the “Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition.”

McClenahan said that the staff of the Los Alamos museum was first provided with information and began preliminary talks in January about the traveling exhibit and a grant from the United States-Japan Foundation to support it.

McClenahan said the Historical Society had only a week between receiving word about potentially hosting the exhibit in 2019 and the grant application’s due date. The Historical Society’s board of directors, she said, decided there wasn’t enough time to address points the exhibition raises about abolishing nuclear weapons.

“They didn’t feel like they had enough time to make a wise decision on everything,” she said. “They felt there needed to be more conversation (and) more context provided.”

During World War II, Los Alamos was the site of the government’s secret Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs. In August 1945, one was dropped over Hiroshima and one over Nagasaki, killing an estimated 150,000 people right away and causing the deaths of many thousands more from aftereffects.

But the bombings approved by then-President Harry S. Truman forced Japan to surrender six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, ending the world war without what was projected to be a difficult, drawn-out invasion of the island country.

McClenahan said the concern over the Hiroshima-Nagasaki exhibit was what she described as a lack of context about how to actually abolish nuclear weapons. She said there needed to be information on what it would take to achieve that goal, on topics such as how world leaders would stop rogue nations and dictators from acquiring and using nuclear bombs.

She said addressing those points was important in the hometown of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“This is a scientific community,” McClenahan said. “This community wants answers to things like that. It’s what they work on every day. Part of our role is to tell the story of Los Alamos, and that’s part of the story.”

McClenehan said the choice not to move forward now on hosting the Hiroshima-Nakasaki exhibit does not mean the exhibition can’t come to the museum in the future. She said conversations are ongoing and the museum wants to work with the organizers in Japan on ways the exhibit could provide additional information.

“We do realize museums are places where people can talk about controversial issues,” she said. “So we can continue our dialogue and figure out ways to move forward.”

According to a web page for the traveling exhibition, it has been shown at galleries and museums in more than 13 countries and in American cities including Washington D.C., New York and Chicago. The exhibit includes survivor testimony, artifacts of damage from the bombings and films that call for nuclear weapons abolition.

Comment from Japanese officials

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum official Tomonori Nitta told the Associated Press that officials there were informed by the Los Alamos museum in mid-February that its board meeting turned down a current plan and that the Japanese museum missed a deadline for funding needed to hold an exhibit in 2019.

The sides also failed to reach consensus on nuclear disarmament details to be included as part of the event, Nitta said.

Nitta said that it is mainly up to the Los Alamos side to figure out ways to resolve the issue, and that he hoped that an exhibit can still happen sometime after 2019.

“If 2019 doesn’t work, we still hope to achieve an exhibit at a later occasion,” Nitta said. “We will continue to cooperate so that we can clear the hurdles and hold an exhibit.”

Takatoshi Hayama, an official at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, said no details have been decided and that officials are still hoping to put on an exhibit.

“We only wish people from around the world to see our exhibit and learn the reality of atomic bombings and their consequences,” he told the AP from Nagasaki.

The website for the exhibit, which was organized by the two Japanese museums, says, “In order to convey the realities of the atomic bombings and the present status of nuclear issues in the hope of arousing international sentiment toward nuclear abolition, the exhibition is hosted in one or two cities overseas a year mainly in nuclear nations, suspected nuclear nations, and cities active in nuclear abolition campaigns.”

Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group, a frequent LANL critic, said LANL “doesn’t want anyone telling them that what they’re doing is running against the tide of history.”

McClenahan said the local museum is separate from the lab. She also noted that parts of the museum address Manhattan Project employees being conflicted about their work as well as the bombs’ effects on Japan.

“We’re open to ideas and conversations and use our museums as a space to talk about these ideas, not to hide from them,” she said.

A representative of the United States-Japan Foundation said no one was available to comment.

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