Greetings from the road! Last week, I attended the AAG conference in Las Vegas where I talked about Mutable Matter. Originally I had planned to do some more fieldwork in the area, but the fieldtrip to the Nevada test site was cancelled and some other meetings did not happen either, so I just went to the Atomic Testing Museum around the corner (from a Las Vegas perspective, that is) from the Convention Center. I have to say it was probably the best museum I have ever visited. Not only was the exhibition material very involving and through-provoking, but the staff was also extremely enthusiastic about the subject matter and seemed to have close ties to the test site either through family or profession. Through their explanations and anecdotes, which they liberally offered, I gained a much more personal insight into this part of Nevada’s history. I was even offered to speak to physicists on site and to read around the topic in the museum library.
Aside from short films from different decades explaining the physics and the issues around atomic bombs, there were also lots of short film clips with interviews of soldiers, engineers and military officials which helped to outline the different positions on the subject.
It was interesting to hear and see through them, how much Nevada embraced the test site when it was moved there. According to one of the interviewees, the motto was: ‘We need to help with the testing in order to protect democracy’. The craving for legitimacy through being entrusted with such an important military project (that would also bring different people to the area) appeared to be either intentionally or unintentionally satirised in events such as ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ or in consumer products such as atom-themed Christmas ornaments, ‘La Bomba Grande’ wine and books such as ‘Atomic Cocktails – Mixed Drinks for Modern Times’, which were also documented in the displays.
The exhibition also gave access to a wealth of public education material from different periods.
One of the older films demonstrated the workings of an atom bomb with mere ping pong balls and mouse traps! I think it was the same film that also assigned the atom four personalities: warrior (destroyer, war), engineer (provider, gives energy), healer (diagnoses, medicine) and research worker (helps understanding, ‘pure science’).
The ‘Ground Zero’ theatre, a showcase of the ‘warrior’ aspect, which I first thought would be inappropriately corny, actually felt like a fittingly disturbing illustration of the schizophrenia around the tests (to create something so frightening in the name of peace). It reminded me more than just a little of the last scene of John Adams’ ‘Doctor Atomic’ opera. Afterwards, several examples were given how destructive the bomb can be with whole islands being blow into the atmosphere to its effects on whole populations and environments. It was also interesting to read how underground tests work and what effects they have on the rock and wider environment around them. The exhibits about the geology of the areas were very surprising in their documentation of volcanic activity in the area, earthquakes and ground water effects. Even more surprising was the exhibit about the native American tribes that lived in the area and were moved from the site.
There were many things that happened on the test site that I did not know about – amongst other things, a so called ‘experimental farm’ where, for 15 years, researchers studied the impact of radioactive fallout on the human food chain, or ‘Operation BREN’, an ‘unusual experiment’ to help Japanese people to understand the health effects of the Atomic Bomb. The site seems to still host a number of other activities such as providing a testing ground for NASA’s moon rovers as well as providing a testing ground for cleaning up hazardous spills and other kinds of environmental remediation. Some even more bizarre stuff was done around the space theme, but also some more sober training occurs for emergency teams. And, of course, the test site must always be prepared for further testing ‘at the direction of the president’. Hmh…
Interactives in the exhibition, apart from the interactive short film selections included hands-on geiger counter probing and computer simulations for nuclear waste disposal and even bomb testing (according to the staff, ‘kids enjoy this most’). In the latter exhibit you (or your kids) actually have to assemble a simplified version of a bomb, detonate it and collect/interpret the resulting data. Next to this exhibit was also a case with souvenir project pins, stickers, metal cowboy cut-out for various subcritical experiments from 1997-99 adding to a surreal finish. Similar items, the infamous bomb keyrings, for instance, could be purchased in the museum shop.
What I liked about the museum was that it critically engaged on an adult level, even – or maybe especially when – it used ordinary techniques such as interactives to engage with such a controversial subject matter. For instance, you had to explain to yourself why you felt queasy about you or some kids assembling a bomb in the virtual – and how you imagine the people involved in the running of the test site would feel about it. I have often left museums extremely frustrated, but this one I left with lots to think about. I also enjoyed the wealth of information around the topic that went of into so many different unexpected directions (down to related developments in photography) that were essential for the understanding of the many dimensions of the project (technical, social, environmental, political etc.). In relation to my project it provoked a lot of thoughts about what kind of risks we have to take (or don’t have to take?) or are willing to accept for the development of new technologies. So much for now as a first impression. You can visit the Atomic Testing Museum via the net at www.atomictestingmuseum.org where a lot of their material is publicly accessible.
Btw the evening after the museum visit, I ended up in a cinema in downtown where ‘The Watchmen’ was shown. Somewhat unexpectedly, the film also featured a nuclear bomb threat, rounding off a very unsettling day.