Sometimes, events and emotions reveal the weakness of words.
I think it unfair how we use the same word to describe deeply different spaces: the Louvre, a place of ultimate art, artifice and decadence, the British Museum, the pinnacle of colonialist loot that boasts ‘from every part of the world’ as an instruction to marvel at such cultural violence, in addition to the Hiroshima Museum of Peace. Indiscriminately, we name them ‘museum’.
When I first saw the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre or the Standard of Ur at the British Museum, I had goosebumps. For me, these objects carried meaning through the millennia - inspiring a cultural connection and pride so strong that I was awe-struck. On the other hand, Nefertiti’s bust at the Neues Museum or the Caravaggios at the Kunsthistorisches Museum have such magic to fixate entire crowds around them for hours.
The Hiroshima Museum of Peace is something else entirely: an experience so overwhelming with emotion and self-awareness that immediately, visitors grow quiet and the heavy silence is perforated only by sniffling. It is insightful, it is powerful. The word 'museum' doesn't convey enough - it's like calling Auschwitz 'a gallery.'
Perhaps what links all ‘museums’ is violence.
The bones or bodies of our ancestors silently weeping, their calls for rest and peace are unheard from within display cases. Terrifying, expressionless faces of taxidermied animals curated to look ‘natural’. Artifacts and icons often outside their homelands. These are the standard contents of museums. What’s more, audio guides and descriptions rarely share how these items got there. It’s self-consciously hidden.
Instead, this violence of severance is neatly packaged in succinct plaques under the guise of telling you a little about each item but in effect, often rob you of context or completeness. That’s where the Hiroshima Museum of Peace is different: visitors are directly connected and confronted with violence. I can only compare this experience to the Robben Island Museum in Cape Town. A heaviness coupled with deep shame.
You know, there’s only one photograph of Hiroshima survivors immediately in the aftermath? The newspaper photographer quickly rushed to the scene, snapped one photograph before being paralyzed by what he saw. Imagine.