Family Fun at the Atomic Testing Museum

Debbie says:

Thursday was the 64th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan. Tomorrow is the 64th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki, Japan. Sixty-four years later, these remain the only two times that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.

To commemorate what should be a sad and pensive occasion, today is “Family Fun Day” at the National Atomic Testing Museum:

Families will have fun as they explore Japanese culture. There will be Japanese dancers, Sushi Rolling, and Origami folding. Take your picture in a kimono.

If I didn’t think it was necessary to blog about this, I would just be sitting here going “buh buh buh.” Even leaving out the whole issue of the anniversary, this kind of “family fun day” is actually the cheapest kind of reductionist cultural appropriation, taking a rich, complex, varied, and ancient culture and pulling out a few recognizable stereotypes for “family fun.” To appreciate a culture that produced everything from ukiyo-e paintings to Hello Kitty, sushi rolling and kimono photographs just don’t cut it.

Second, why do we have an Atomic Testing Museum anyway? I had a vague hope that it was private, but no. It’s a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate, and it works with the Department of Energy. And as near as I can tell, it doesn’t give a lot of attention to the human cost of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan. The “After the Bomb” “multigenerational narrative” that was held on Hiroshima Day may, in fact, treat with the experiences of Japanese victims, but you can’t tell that from the site.

The little slide show of the museum takes us through 14 galleries. None of the captions ever mention the attacks on Japan. Instead, the focus is on the Nevada test site, and other tests. There’s even a gallery devoted to the people who lived on the test site before it became a war zone. And the news article linked above mentions the people whose health was affected by the testing. But the Japanese, it appears, are only trotted out around Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days. Why would they be important to the history of atomic testing? After all, they weren’t harmed by tests.

Anyone who knows anything about Japan is likely to know just how big an actual and mythical role those two explosions play in the lives of contemporary Japanese people. Wikipedia estimates 220,000 deaths in the first year, and that was by no means everyone who died. If you’re Japanese, the odds are good that you (or your parents) know someone who died, or are just one remove away. Anger, fear, rage, resentment, confusion: all the things that people and nations feel after being attacked. These things are not “family fun.” They can, in fact, destroy (or strengthen) families.

Am I over-reacting? Well, here’s a thought experiment:

On September 11, 2065, the Islamic Museum of Air Warfare (perhaps in Abu Dhabi, or Karachi) holds a “Family Fun Day” in which you can eat a hamburger, ride on a hay wagon, and get your picture taken in a cowboy outfit. Does that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Or does it seem inappropriate, trivializing, and heartless?

Wry thanks to evwhore, who also included an interesting quotation from Dave Barry on a closely related topic.

12 thoughts on “Family Fun at the Atomic Testing Museum

  1. Oh, dear – that sidebar labeled “News Blast” leaves me speechless.

    There is another museum in the US that takes a more historically accurate and complete view of the US nuclear program and use of the bomb – the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, in Albuquerque. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and they do not in any way hide the horrors and effects of the two attacks on Japan. My sense was they implicitly came down too hard on the side of “the bombings shortened the war,” which I don’t personally buy.

  2. oddly enough, your example has the opposite effect on me – I agree that this “Celebrate Japanese culture because we dropped a bomb on them!” is anywhere from tacky to perverse, but I’d kind of LIKE it if there were a silly American culture fun day in Islamic countries in the future… it would imply they didn’t hate us, and less hate is a definite positive from the current position.

  3. I think it would be possible to have a “family fun day” at that museum that wasn’t “let’s do three hours of random things that westerners associate with Japan”–maybe even include origami, but alongside other crafts, not all of them Japanese; encourage people to picnic, or sell pre-packed box lunches; maybe some music or dancing, but again, not only Japanese. (Why you would want a “family fun day” at that museum is another question, but I suspect the answer is “because it brings visitors.”) And there are other summer weekends that might be more appropriate–from any angle, including that of trying to lure people when things are quiet.

    It would also be possible to have a deeper “Japan and the bomb” exhibit, though that might be beyond what they’re up for (or think the public generally and/or Congress would accept) But there’s no reason to combine the two.

  4. Actually it’s more like if you had a “family fun day” in Saudi Arabia on September 11, 2065 and served Nathan’s hot dogs and handed out Yankee caps.

  5. It is really kind of wrong that trivialize the bombings. I’m glad, though, that America and Japan aren’t super enemies over it. I mean, it was a horrible thing to end a horrible war.

    A “Family Fun Day” would be fine… And sushi, origami, and kimonos are great for those kinds of days. But there also needs to be a deeper, more solemn lesson. I know, I know… people don’t want their kids to be faced with things like bombings and death. But, honestly, kids can take it! And, I think, when they’re faced with something like that at a young age, they take it to heart. They’re not as cynical as older people. I’m not saying that we should show them pictures of people dying… But, I think, when a museum focusing on atomic bombs has a Family Fun Day specifically featuring Japanese culture, either the museum or parents should sit the children down and tell them what happened when America bombed Japan and explain the pain that went along with it.

  6. When I considered this event, the first phrase that popped into my mind was “culturally tone deaf.” The concept is poorly thought out because the only connection between Japan and atomic testing is “here’s the country we used it on after we tested it.” However, I would tend to cut them a tiny amount of slack because my educated guess is that the staff that puts together events for an entity called the “National Atomic Testing Museum” even if they ARE affiliated with the Smithsonian, are more likely to be human-interaction-challenged hard science nerds (to use a quick and handy stereotype).

    But for some reason the word “entitlement” has been echoing through this week for me….more specifically watching how people behave when they feel entitled, and view others as scenery or obstacles. So I’m going to play the psychic fiction writer and imagine the mental process behind this decision: “we’ve been thinking a lot about the one country where atomic bombs were used for real, not as a test–Japan. Let’s look at that place for a bit, they have a very interesting culture you know–colorful. We could build some events around some of that stuff.”

    Okay, taking off my psychic fiction writer hat. I’ve met many people in this great nation of ours who were stunned to discover, for example, that you don’t have to be Chinese to cook Chinese food. Cultural diversity is learned. Getting busted by the media for insensitivity is one learning tool.

  7. That is extremely, extremely bizarre. And tone deaf. And I don’t know what else to day.

    But I think there should be a nuclear testing museum, though depending on how things are presented that could be a problem. It happened, we did it, everybody should know about it. I’ve also been to the National Museum of Nuclear Science, in 1984 when it was on the Sandia Labs within Kirtland Airforce Base. I remember we were all amused by how it had the Helvetica font signs and things like that, just like a “normal” museum.

    As Lisa says, it was mostly “we needed the bomb to end the war faster and save lives” and there were things like how sailors were getting hurt loading heavy bombs onto ships, but thanks to American ingenuity scientists were able to make the bomb smaller! Fewer injuries! I guess any military museum is going to have that stance.

    My recollection of Japanese culture and Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims is that they’re considered kind of embarrasing and shameful so they aren’t publicized much. An interesting book about this is The Hiroshima Maidens about an American project in the 50s to bring young women with disfiguring injuries to the United States for plastic surgery.

  8. Holding up the culture of one’s enemies in a museum, even having a Family Fun Day about it, doesn’t necessarily mean one doesn’t hate them. It isn’t evidence that there’s no more danger of war or genocide. Maybe it suggests a lack of fear…but it doesn’t suggest any respect. It can be awfully othering (especially if it’s not done well, and this seems to have been done very badly.) The more I learn about genocide, the more I see it as growing out of various kinds of othering.

    Hitler planned a “Museum of an Extinct People.” A warehouse of stolen Judaica was found in Prague after the war, with the long range plans and early efforts at cataloging the loot. The surviving Jewish community of Prague did build a Jewish museum. They send the Torah scrolls on permanent loan to congregations that will use them, as a better way to honor the memory of communities that were destroyed than keeping them in a museum. (My congregation in Albany had one.)

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