WASHINGTON -- The exhibition hall was not in one of the cavernous museums that dot this city's landscape. Rather, the artifacts were displayed in a small room on the sixth-floor of a student center.
It is a small but powerful collection, energized by faces and personal belongings. It is an exhibit on the destruction caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it opened Saturday at the American University, not very far from the Smithsonian Institution, where a display on the same subject had been modified into a much tamer version.
At the beginning of the American University exhibit, a large close-up photograph shows a girl, her face splotched with blood, wearing a polka-dotted hood. There are several cases of artifacts on loan from museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including a child's disintegrated school uniform, fused coins, a melted lunch box and a pocket watch stopped at 8:15, the moment the first bomb exploded over Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945.
The university's exhibit, "Constructing a Peaceful World: Beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki," is a complement to a summer curriculum on nuclear war and, according to university officials, was not meant to be an alternative to the Smithsonian's exhibition of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the world's first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
Nonetheless, a comparison begs to be made, since it shows many of the same kinds of photographs and artifacts included in the original plans for the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibition, which was greatly altered after protests by veterans groups that said the planned exhibit portrayed the Japanese as victims rather than as aggressors.
The furor started after the Smithsonian sent out copies of a long text explaining the political and strategic background of the bombings for review by various groups and scholars.
In the end, the museum dropped almost all the text, and the photos and items that were to illustrate its points.
The university's exhibit conveys a horrific portrait of war and contains a plea for continued efforts for nuclear disarmament. None of the veterans groups has objected.
"It's not the Smithsonian," said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the American Legion, the country's largest veterans group. "The Smithsonian is a federal agency supported by taxpayer money, and rightly or wrongly, what it portrays is seen as the U.S. version of history. At American University, those constraints don't apply."
The original exhibit at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, which was in planning for more than a year at a cost of $1.6 million, was intended to examine the events leading to the Hiroshima bombing and the devastation it caused.
After many revisions, including an additional study of Japanese aggression in the Pacific and American suffering in prisoner-of-war camps, a leaner exhibition focusing on the Enola Gay and its mission opened on June 28.