Museums on the United States’ Atomic Frontier

The estimated reading time for this post is 7 minutes.

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.

Awe

After walking down a labyrinthine corridor, whose walls are covered in life-size images of the Nevada Test Site, visitors at my first stop, the National Atomic Testing Museum on Tropicana Avenue in Las Vegas, arrive at the Ground Zero Theater. I walked into the intimate space with two other visitors. After sitting for a few minutes, the lights dimmed and a short film about nuclear testing began. Midway through the film, we experienced an atomic blast. We saw actual footage from a test. The flash of light on the screen was accompanied by a loud explosion from the theatre’s surround sound system. On the screen, the cloud moved rapidly towards us. The shock wave hit before the cloud, our chairs shook. The cloud reached us. The bright light faded to pitch black. I was not entirely sure how to make sense of the theater’s combination of historical footage and Disneyland theatrics. I do know that the experience was designed to instill awe in my viscera, not my objective mind. The atomic sublime literally engulfed us.

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If that experience were not enough, the exhibit ends with a memorial to 9/11. Evoking the Nevada Test Site’s current role as a training center for counterterrorism, a mangled piece of steel from the World Trade Center watches over visitors as they exit to the lobby.

My third stop, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History on the edge of Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque appealed to affect not through the sublime but through scale. It sports both an exhibit hall dedicated to nuclear weapons as well as the outside Heritage Park, “Complete with planes, rockets, missiles, cannons and nuclear sub sail, this exhibit will attract plane buffs and historians alike.”[i] The life-size version of Fat Man leaves an impression, but the most evocative piece was the nuclear cannon, complete with historic photograph. The size of the cannon inspires strangelovesque awe. That such a large machine was designed to so wantonly deploy an atomic weapon simultaneously boggles the mind and piques the visitor’s interest in tactical nuclear warfare.

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Objectivity

The scientific objectivity that grounds memory at the atomic museums relies on exemplars who bolster the prestige of each site’s scientific community. At my second stop, the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer greets visitors to the History Gallery.

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The laboratory’s first director looks somewhat startled. Why, his statue does not say. But his presence permeates the gallery. Visitors are told that he named the Trinity test after a verse from John Donne. They see a short film about Los Alamos and hear him utter the famous line from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”[ii] When I watched this, the 30-odd seat theater was packed. People from across the US came to hear the icon’s story. A cultured physicist who focused all his ingenuity on the production of the bomb, in service of liberal democracy, Oppenheimer exemplifies objective authority.

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At Las Vegas and Albuquerque, Einstein stands as a surrogate for the objectivity of their scientific communities. Copies of his letter, ghost-written by Leó Szilárd, to Franklin Roosevelt encouraging the creation of the bomb offer moral authority to the communities tasked with creating the bomb. Einstein proves historically important, but the museums use him as more than just an important relic. In Albuquerque, his image lives not in the history section but in Little Albert’s Lab, where he helps “children of all ages grasp the concepts of physics, the basis of all sciences.” The funky-haired, eternal sage invites young children to participate in science games. Einstein holds court in one of the museum’s last displays, offering visitors a glimpse of order before they return to the unruly world. The museum also hosts an annual, black tie Einstein Gala.

Lest we think only men bolster claims to objectivity, my sixth stop, The Reach in Kennewick, Washington, highlights the role of women. In the Daughters of Hanford display, Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is described as “one of the only women scientists to work on the Manhattan Project during World War II.”[iii] When I visited, the Daughters of Hanford display was in the back corner of the exhibit hall dedicated to Hanford’s wartime development. After walking past a display that tallies how many meals were served to workers over the course of the war – remember the grandiose theme – Marshall Libby’s image looks superlatively professional. Standing amid schematics and charts, her gaze befits the scientist who worked out the Xenon poisoning problem that nearly shuttered Hanford’s reactors before they could produce any plutonium. Which came first, Marshall’s objectivity or her looking the part of a proper, mid-20th century scientist, I could not tell.

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Opportunity

Each museum offers atomic faithful visions of future opportunities, if only the US were to embrace its atomic potential. No site boosts atomic opportunities like my fifth stop, the Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 Atomic Museum outside Idaho Falls. The pride of the Idaho National Laboratory, the Experimental Breeder Reactor was the first US reactor to produce electricity. The nearby town of Arco has not forgotten.

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The museum is inside the reactor itself, so the visitor is invited to experience the workings of an historic reactor while also internalizing the future possibilities of atomic power. I was overwhelmed by the sterility of the place, concrete punctuated by industrial steel piping dominates the windowless building. The shrine to atomic opportunity is in a makeshift exhibit in the reactor’s old offices. Here visitors are told the story of how the US could experience energy independence if only breeder reactor technology had been allowed to develop. Political infirmity after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 plays the antagonist in this story while the engineers and scientists at Idaho National Lab play the protagonists. The US public are cast as unwitting victims in the travesty of technology cut short in the prime of its vigor. This museum tugs at the heartstrings of the atomic faithful by presenting a desired future, a vision of technocracy in which the atom is humankind’s savior.

Affect and Conflict

The atomic museums which dot the US’ atomic frontier rely mainly on appeals to affect rather than objectivity. They invite their visitors to be overwhelmed with awe. They make objective claims, but tie those claims to the very subjective identities and reputations of individual scientists. They ask visitors to dream of a future that erases very real environmental and health disasters. These appeals that ask museum visitors to feel warmly towards local incarnations of the US atomic program deal with a limited scope of atomic history. While each museum does acknowledge past disasters and mistakes, these mishaps are portrayed as falling within the reasonable bounds of a modern risk culture. To err is human, and at each of the heretofore mentioned museums, errors are narrated so that they lead to greater scientific capability and responsibility.

But this story is not universal.

I left out the museum at my fourth stop, the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum, because it no longer exists. The brick and mortar site closed for lack of funds. Moreover, the Rocky Flats site itself has been bulldozed and turned into Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The museum, like the plutonium weaponization site it recalls, has been wiped away. Their memories fail to inspire awe, appeal to objectivity, or promote opportunity.

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A final, unannounced stop to one last museum draws this conflict even more deeply. The Wanapum Heritage Center, on the east bank of the Columbia River just a few miles north of the Hanford site, exists in spite of the atomic program. Affect, for the Wanapum, is as much lament as anything else. The tribe never signed a treaty with the federal government and, being small, was reasonably easy to evict when Hanford was created. They lost their traditional fishing spots and the ability to move across the landscape with relative freedom. In the exhibit treating Hanford, a recording shares the words of a member of the tribe, “It [the land] was very rich. It has the marks and scars of the bomb being made, but in time we will reclaim it.”[iv] In this instance, memory of the scientific program is a memory of destruction. The reactors and chemical separation plants gouged the land. Plumes of radioactive material left their mark on the steppe as they fell out of the air. Memory points not to the objectivity of the atomic scientists but to the destruction of a subjective relationship, between long-term inhabitants and the land. As the Wanapum ask that no pictures be taken inside the heritage center, its profile against the background of the Columbia, which has been dammed by the public utilities district, provides the only portable image of their claim that atomic affect should be one of sorrow.

Claims of historical and scientific objectivity on the atomic frontier in the western United States cannot be anything but complicated. I hope that my journey has shown that they are in fact rooted in very subjective arguments, dependent on the viewpoints of very particular and geographically disparate communities. Awe, objectivity, and opportunity are dominant but not exclusive atomic themes. They exist amid the erasure of the atomic past and lament for what could have been had the atom had never been weaponized.

 

[i] “See the Museum,” The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, http://www.nuclearmuseum.org/see/exhibits/, accessed January 4, 2017.

[ii] “The Town that Never Was,” Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos, NM.

[iii] Wall text, Gallery II, Daughters of Hanford, The Reach, Kennewick, WA.

[iv] Recording, “Hanford Exhibit,” Wanapum Heritage Center, Mattawa, WA.