While it’s not quite there yet, Los Alamos will one day be a tourist attraction, to be visited like the Grand Canyon, after which people can stop at the gift shop a purchase their own faux plutonium nugget.
The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos opened a new exhibit Friday to help the National Park Service scale that roadblock to providing visitors with the full range of experiences meant to showcase the history of the Atomic Age. Manhattan on the Mesa, an interactive exhibit, takes visitors “behind the fence” to five buildings within the Los Alamos lab’s Technical Area 18, which until 2005 had been storing sensitive nuclear weapons material.
The lab and the Energy Department funded the project, in partnership with New Mexico Highlands University’s Program in Interactive Cultural Technology. Students in the Highlands program used their technical expertise to create a “virtual tour” of the off-limit areas, a task that required some students to don protective clothing and make a real visit to the sites and film them.
Want to stand where Oppenheimer stood? Well, one day, perhaps, but for now, at least you can see it virtually. But what you won’t see, when that day comes, is the film about the lab, the secret town built around it, and the context in which it was created.
Another joint effort between Highlands and the museum was updating the museum’s history film, dating back to the 1970s and titled The Town that Never Was.
The original film began with a priest praying before a statue of Jesus. It included footage of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers. Those are absent in the new version, along with sections about how the community’s early homes easily caught fire near a plutonium facility, a segment showing high explosives transported through town over bumpy roads and details about the name “Los Alamos” being absent from mailing addresses and driver’s licenses.
Instead, the new history film focuses on the scientific work of making the first bombs and how this mission evolved through the Cold War and into the lab’s current enterprises.
The original film was created in the 1970s, which obviously isn’t the 1940s, and so it might be fair to say that any modifications now aren’t a lot different than the choices that went into the original. After all, they were 30 years after the fact in the first place, so it was created through a post hoc lens back then. Now, the lens is just more post and less hoc.
But is this just a matter of focusing more on science and less on the politics, or the morality, that gave rise to the Manhattan Project?
Chavez, who is heading to the University of Southern California for a master’s program in the fall, said the new film, Racing Toward Dawn, which she co-directed and edited, “depicts the urgency of the achievements, but yet it shows the sorrow.”
“The main goal and main focus was to end the war,” she said. “And I think that was the ethical reason for telling the story the way we did — for showing the sorrow, the devastation, but also the successes.”
Back in the 1970s, we were still pretty proud of the fact that we won World War II, including ending the war in the Pacific Theater even if it meant massive death and destruction. Our boys were dying too, and not in a pleasant way. But times change, as does “the sorrow.” A pity.