According to the Japanese Chunichi Shimbun newspaper, an exhibition called The Birth of French Impressionism set to open at the Prefectural Art Museum in Hiroshima City on April 5 has been canceled due to the cancellation of art loans from France. The loans seem to have been canceled because of fear of radiation damage to the artworks due to the Japanese earthquake and its aftereffects on the area’s nuclear power plants. No one wants to see an irradiated Cezanne! Yet a glance at a map of Japan shows that the French could be worrying a little too much. [Hat tip to Annie Bissett]

The original Japanese newspaper article can be found here, while the translation is here. The article notes that the exhibition was canceled,

…Due to the fact that the loan of artwork that made up 60% of the total from French museums has been stopped. It is thought that this was due to fears over the effects of the nuclear power plant accident caused by the East Japan Disaster.

This exhibit was to be show 84 pieces of art, by Monet, Renoire, Millet, Courbet and others. Of these, 52 were to be loaned by 4 art museums in Franec. The exhibit was to run until May 29th, sponsored by Chunichi Shimbun and others, and later tour to Ehime, Okinawa and Kumamoto prefectures.

These artworks were scheduled to be sent on the 24th of the month from France to Naria Airport, but on the 18th the French Ministère de la Culture informed [the prefectural government] that all loans of art work to Japan were terminated until further notice.

The article’s information is echoed on a news bulletin posted on the museum’s website entitled “Special exhibition “The Birth of Impressionism” is canceled”. The exhibition poster shows an idyllic Impressionist landscape that presumably won’t make it to Japan. The English side of the website, on the other hand, hasn’t been updated since March 2010.

If the radiation is really that bad for art, then it should send up red flags for the safety of human beings. Yet no one’s really sure what the extent of radiation leak is. At the moment, only those in close range of the nuclear power plants themselves are under serious risk. Gothamist recently reported that “radiation levels measured near the plant would cause acute radiation sickness after 75 minutes exposure.” At present, it seems doubtful that radiation would reach so far as to impact the art museum.

As far as the possibility of nuclear explosions damaging the artworks, Japan’s nuclear reactors actually cannot and will not explode like we would all assume a nuclear bomb would. The reactors use a much lower grade of uranium in much lower densities than would be found in a true bomb. The “explosions” taking place are within the reactor building, not the nuclear core itself.

It remains to be seen what the French are actually thinking, since the Ministry hasn’t made any comment on the loan cancellation yet. On one hand, it seems a little paranoid to assume that the art works would be seriously endangered, but on the other, isn’t any risk too great for these singular paintings? If they were permanently damaged or destroyed, the loan would have tragic consequences.


Check out this map of the Japanese nuclear reactors in relation to the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. The circle at right shows the evacuation zone around the nuclear reactors while the star at left show the location of the museum forced to cancel the exhibition. To me, that looks like the French are being a little overzealous. For more information, check out Google’s excellent Japan earthquake resource page.

Map via Google’s Japan resources


Commenter RP gives use the lowdown on the risk of radiation, noting that the French artworks would actually be exposed to more radiation in a normal shipping flight to Japan than they would on the ground, particularly so far from the radiation epicenter. RP links us to radiation stats for Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, much closer to Fukushima (epicenter) than Tokyo, let alone Hiroshima (the site of the museum). The stats are already returning to pre-quake levels. Here’s the money quote:

There is absolutely no radiation risk in Tsukuba and Tsukuba is much closer to the accident site than is Tokyo. One gets a much bigger dose of radiation flying from Narita to New York. In fact, at 0.05 microSv per hour, you would have to be standing outside in the elements everyday for nearly 158 days straight to equal the amount of radiation you’d receive on just that single one-way flight from Tokyo to New York.

There you have it. Risk of radiation damage can’t be the only factor in the French withdrawing the art loans.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

3 replies on “Is Japanese Radiation Bad For Art? [UPDATE]”

  1. The radiation artworks would be exposed to in a flight across the Pacific (or Atlantic) would far exceed that in Hiroshima, or even Tokyo for that matter. Boo!

  2. I think that the French pictures are not so important as people’s lives, though their value are also so high. we can’t return anybody who died during this awful earthquake and it’s the biggest disappointment!!!! I remember the frightened eyes of children from unique video on and can’t forget their voices for help. Praying constantly for them all.

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