“The Day the World Changed”: Virtual Reality and Traumatic Memory

In 2018, at the Tribeca Film Festival, a virtual reality film, “The Day the World Changed” premiered giving the audience an opportunity to experience the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at just past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945. Although this film was made mainly to commemorate the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winners, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, it raises many questions on the use of technology and virtual reality experiences around traumatic memory spaces.

Daniel Fernandez’s 2018 lengthy-titled article, “This New Virtual Reality Experience Drops You In Hiroshima Right After It’s Been Bombed” in the Smithsonian.com  interprets this film as a chance to educate the public while balancing “the line between empathy and trauma”. According to Fernandez’s article, the film uses archival materials and 3D imaging to place the audience in the time from developing the bomb, dropping it, and the following intense arms race. Filmmakers, Saschka Unseld and Gabo Arora did not want to use fear tactics and only show the most graphic and evocative parts of the destruction of Hiroshima because Arora argues that those feelings, while intense, don’t last.

The USA’s Difficulty to Remember

As an American, this article is so intriguing to me because I have seen the difficulty my country has had with the memory of the A-bomb. Even today students are taught that the bombing was necessary and inevitable to end the Second World War and to save almost a million USA soldiers. It is not mentioned that in 9 seconds over 100,000 civilians died, but there are many uncertain points to this official memory that I won’t get into right now, but the fact remains that this specifically tailored memory is desperately held on to by many people of the public, but also the government.

By Unknown – https://www.archives.gov/research_room/arc/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=254651

A Failed Exhibit

In the mid-1990s the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum had plans to show the Enola Gay, the infamous plane that dropped the bomb, in a larger exhibit about the memory of Hiroshima. At first, the exhibit solely centered around dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. After intense protest from veterans associations and within Congress, it was decided that such an exhibit would too harshly depict the States as the aggressors and the Japanese as victims. The argument was that the exhibit did not explain the context of the situation, thus lacking any supposed justification. Another specific detail was how to best display the plane. To what extent should it be restored? Cleaned? When would the plane be placed onto a pedestal, glorifying the actions? The exhibit went through many changes, one to include the war in the Pacific as a whole, but  the controversy continued at such a quick pace that the exhibit was completely dismantled, even leading to the director’s resignation.

Why now?

Twenty years later, the Smithsonian news site exclaims the influence and power of a new VR film,  an even more realistic representation of that tragic day as the wave of the future. Is the United States ready to open the memory surrounding the dropping of the atomic bombs? I’m not so sure. Phil Budahn, a member of the American Legion argues that the Smithsonian is still a federal agency, which makes it difficult for any exhibit to stray from the official memory. Besides the nuances of official and individual/collective memories, I think what this film does differently than the exhibit is the medium itself, it is a film. Even though it is mainly of archival materials, there is still a gap between narrative and reality that this film fills comfortably that may not shake the official memory over these events. If this film were released on larger scale, it may not have the same safety net, but what about within a museum setting?

 

The Future of VR?

Pine and Gilmore’s article, “Museums and Authenticity”, argues that experience-based exhibits may have more influence over memory than the traditional mode of informational panels. Questions of authenticity, technological and moral ethics and, in the case of this film or of others surrounding traumatic events and spaces, the dangers of sensationalising memory arise, but it could also be a method to open a space in which to better engage with difficult memories as individuals or as a nation. Focusing on the emotional, narrative experience may be a larger trend outside of museums as well. In 2016, the EC funded the three year “Emotive” project in which emotional storytelling is used as a method to connect with audiences. According to their website, most people won’t remember the details of an exhibit, but will remember the feelings associated with it.

The co-directors of “The Day the World Changed” argued that VR technology would allow large audiences to grapple with memory in an open framework, without constrictions or forcing certain ideologies, but as a space to acknowledge collective guilt and responsibility, as whatever that means for each person. This may be in response to the over-flooding of information and stimulus in society’s reliance and constant use of technology, but the fact remains, that memories of all kinds are steeped within technology and types such as VR may be the best way to resonate historical events to the public today.

 

Pine II, Joseph & Gilmore, James. (2007). “Museums & Authenticity”.  Museum News, May/June, pp. 76-93

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