NEW YORK – Photographs taken the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and held by a defunct Chicago museum suffered water damage and were eventually thrown out, the court-designated receiver for the museum and county court documents have revealed.
The 60 photos were one of three sets of identical images. American documentary film director Christopher Beaver donated the now lost set to the Chicago Peace Museum in the 1990s. Beaver had worked with Shogo Yamahata, the son of Yosuke Yamahata, an Imperial Japanese Army photographer who captured the images.
Among the photos lost was a famous image of a mother and child waiting for medical treatment. Regarding their disposal, Yamahata told Kyodo News, “all I can say is that I regret their loss.” Beaver also expressed his sadness in a statement.
Yosuke Yamahata died in 1966, and his son, now 67 years old, says he has cherished the negatives because of their importance. The negatives deteriorated over the years but were restored in 1994 using digital technology in the U.S.
Based on the restored negatives, Yamahata and Beaver made three sets of photographs. The other two sets were given to the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, California and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki.
The photos were also part of the “Nagasaki Journey” exhibition in 1995, which travelled to 15 cities in Japan and the United States including Tokyo, Washington D.C. and Nagasaki.
“My intent in donating three versions of the Nagasaki journey exhibit to three different repositories was to help insure that Mr. Yamahata’s images survive far beyond our present historical era,” said Beaver. “Mr. Yamahata’s legacy will continue to reveal the story of what one atomic bomb did to one city as witnessed by one man on one day.”
When the photos were first shown, America’s use of the atomic bomb was an even more politically sensitive issue than it is today. A planned exhibit on the bombing in 1995 by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was called off after objections by American World War II veterans.
The Peace Museum has a storied history. Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder attended its opening ceremony in 1981. According to reports in the Chicago Tribune, it exhibited photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of John Lennon’s guitars. But in the past few years the museum fell into financial decline and was eventually dissolved around 2009.
The museum’s final location was a room in a community center. When the museum closed, some of the nearly 10,000 artifacts it had acquired were stored in the center’s basement, while others were kept in two storage facilities in Chicago.
Concerned about the storage conditions and possible mismanagement, the state of Illinois filed a complaint against the museum and its director, Melissa McGuire, in 2011. The court designated Brian Leber as a receiver for the museum’s assets.
When he went through the stored items, Leber found Yamahata’s photographs were severely damaged and judged them impossible to restore, he said at his Chicago office.Court documents from the state lawsuit said the photos’ “emulsion has dissolved.” Based on Leber’s assessment, the court ordered them disposed of along with other items including “multiple pieces of broken track lighting,” “empty shipping boxes,” and “a water damaged 1972 Vietnam calendar.”
“My wife is Japanese-American. I understand Japanese sentiment for the photographs,” Leber said, emphasizing that he decided to scrap the photos with great sadness.
According to Leber, none of the photographs of the atomic bombing survived. Other organizations that received items from the defunct museum confirmed they had not been given any of the images.
Before the Peace Museum closed, the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims convened an exhibit there in 2005. It was the first time a Japanese governmental organization presented the exhibit overseas.