Monday, April 7, 2008

An Explosive Time off the Strip

The wooden bench beneath me is uncomfortable. I note that there are no seat belts, no guard rails or other protective devices. "How bad can it be then?" I reason with myself.

The walls look like concrete cinder blocks, as if we are in a bunker. In real life, we would have been out in the open in the dry and dusty desert, a vast and empty land that was about to become even dustier by an order of magnitude.

The countdown begins. We don't have the protective sunglasses that we would have worn in real life; again, I ask myself, "Really, how bad can this be?" But I'm nervous just the same. I start to brace myself.

A blinding flash and the bench shakes beneath me as the mushroom cloud appears in the distance on the screen. Smoke rushes at us on the screen and air blasts my face.

I cringe.

It wouldn't have mattered how many times I sat as an observer, I know I would have been terrified each and every time I witnessed an atmospheric atomic detonation. The lesson of the Ground Zero Theater at the Atomic Testing Museum has struck home solidly with me; mission accomplished.

Although a thrilling and effective experience, the Ground Zero Theater is not the only highlight of this remarkable Museum. Through historic news reels, videos and memorabilia, the Atomic Age Gallery draws in visitors—particularly Baby Boomers—as it contextualizes atomic theory and atmospheric atomic testing.

A nearby gallery illustrates how atomic testing was welcomed by the city of Las Vegas as both a tourist attraction and a means to make the burgeoning town seem more "legitimate."

In the Innovators Gallery first-person stories are told from the contractors who ate lunch sitting on bomb casings, to the secretaries and security guards in charge of day-to-day operations at the Nevada Test Site. This adds a wonderful human element to the exhibit, forcing visitors to realize that atomic testing is not just about nuclear physicists in white lab coats.

The museum seems to peter out a bit towards the end, however. A lot of real estate is dedicated to technical explanations about and artifacts from the underground testing that replaced the atmospheric tests. Many people breeze through this gallery. Similarly, the gallery devoted to the various uses of the Nevada Test Site is far less compelling than the nearby Innovators Gallery where personal stories are featured instead.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the experiences of Generation X are virtually ignored. Despite the fact that Gen Xers grew up in the shadow of the bomb when the hands of the Doomsday Clock pointed to two minutes to midnight and the made-for-TV movie, “The Day After” inspired nightmares for months, the museum is clearly designed with Baby Boomers in mind to the exclusion of other demographics. This is problematic both in terms of relevance and marketing to non-Baby Boomers and the museum’s own narrative. The final Today and Tomorrow Gallery feels rushed and tacked on. A piece of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the end of the Cold War—the impetus for atmospheric atomic testing—while a piece of the World Trade Center symbolizes the fact that there are still threats to democracy and American safety, justifying the need for continued testing.

Frankly, though, a far more compelling motivation for continuing nuclear testing can be found in the testimony of one of the scientists from the Innovators Gallery. He believes that there should never be a time when no one can remember from firsthand experience the actual devastating impact of a nuclear explosion.

Hopefully the museum will help to serve as solemn reminder as well.

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