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History museum errs on Hiroshima

The Los Alamos History Museum is a small gem among northern New Mexico’s many cultural offerings, especially since it underwent remodeling that was completed in late 2016.

It tells the story of New Mexico’s Atomic City from a human point of view.

There’s another museum in town, the Bradbury Science Museum, about technical stuff and the national lab. The History Museum instead shows what it was like to live in Los Alamos, dating from the time of the Ancestral Puebloans to when Elsie McMillan and Lois Bradbury looked through the window of a house (now part of the museum) to see the flash of an early-morning atomic explosion more than 200 miles away, on July 16, 1945.

Artwork by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto uses flashing lights and beeps on a world map to illustrate the number and location of atomic/nuclear bombs exploded from 1945 to 1998. They total 2,053 and the artwork takes more than 14 minutes to represent them all.

And in a contemplative space that shows images from the Trinity Test explosion and taped recollections of people who witnessed it, clipboards on the wall ask visitors to give their thoughts on issues such as a scientist’s moral responsibility in developing weapons of mass destruction.

So it was particularly disappointing to learn this week that the museum’s board had passed on hosting the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition, which has toured the world over the past 20 years or so. It uses photos, paintings, kids’ drawings, recorded interviews and artifacts from the two bombed cities in Japan to make the case for abolishing nuclear weapons.

It’s not an amateurish production – the Washington Post lavished praise on the exhibit’s artwork when it was shown at American University in 2015.

Like the Los Alamos History Museum, the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition talks about people.

A Medill News Service write-up in 2016 starts “Three colorful origami cranes made by schoolgirl Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the U.S. strike on Hiroshima, sit on display for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition in Chicago. She folded nearly 1,000 cranes as a traditional prayer for healing before she died of leukemia 10 years after the bomb strike. She was 12 years old.”

The undergarments of a two-year-old and a girl’s simple cloth satchel are part of the exhibit, alongside pictures of children associated with the personal items and who perished in blasts from the two bombs developed at Los Alamos that brought an end to World War II.

The Los Alamos museum’s director says her board of directors was concerned about the exhibit’s “lack of context” – not about why the U.S. used atomic bombs on Japan, but about how the abolishment of nuclear weapons might actually take place. She said there needed to be information on topics such as how world leaders would stop rogue nations and dictators from acquiring and using nuclear bombs.

These arguments are overwrought. The Japanese exhibit shows what nuclear weapons can do to humanity and posits the idea that we would be better off without them.

The Los Alamos museum seems to be demanding a detailed plan for nuclear disarmament. It’s as if someone at church or on the street said “Peace be with you” and you responded, “How the hell is that supposed to happen?”

The Los Alamos museum’s board apparently was rushed and had only a brief time to decide whether to accept the Hiroshima-Nagasaki exhibit and apply for grant funding.

Given time to reconsider, the Los Alamos museum needs to do the right thing and put the Japanese exhibit on display at the next opportunity. The Los Alamos community is surely strong enough and confident enough about its role in both history and the U.S. nuclear weapons complex to withstand this dose of exposure from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.