Museums on the United States’ Atomic Frontier

5211 miles. In the distance that runs roughly from London to Karachi, Pakistan, I spent the summer of 2016 driving across the western half of the United States to visit six atomic sites. Each site was integral in the production of the US nuclear arsenal during World War II and the Cold War. While I was in search of local archives, each local atomic museum proved much more captivating. After long, solitary drives through wide open desert and mountains, I came to look forward to the stimulation of poking through their exhibits. At the beginning of the trip, I did not know what to expect from each museum, though I suspected that each would lean heavily on ideas of objectivity in their portrayals of local atomic histories. I did encounter exhibits that made unalloyed claims about objective scientific and historical truths. But, I found so much more at the museums. Three themes leap to the fore on the trip. The museums instill awe by displaying the sublime and grandiose aspects of the bomb. They invoke objectivity by using heroic scientists as exemplars for truth. Finally, they exude opportunity by pointing to possible atomic futures. I argue that the museums rely on affect and desire more than they rely on objectivity to tell the US’ atomic story.

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