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Trinity Test exhibit at the Atomic Museum.
Trinity Test exhibit at the Atomic Museum.

Atomic Museum

Field review by the editors.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas bedazzles with gambling and entertainment glitz, but it's not the first city that comes to mind for authentic history attractions. Yet it never lacks in oddball museums (at least, while they last; R.I.P., Liberace Museum and Elvis-A-Rama).

Miss Atomic Bomb and Nuclear Family Mom.
Miss Atomic Bomb and Nuclear Family Mom.

The Atomic Museum (formerly the Atomic Testing Museum) is a surprisingly rewarding place to spend some hours away from the casinos. And in contrast to the Strip's faux experiences (such as its half-size Eiffel Tower), atomic testing was a real part of Vegas. Residents and tourists in the 1950s and '60s watched mushroom clouds rise 65 miles north of downtown; tests were advertised for rooftop viewing parties. The Atomic Museum is a natural fit in this unnatural world.

The "Atomic Tour" we devised in our 1986 book, Roadside America, included the "DOE's Nevada Test Site Range." It was a fleeting mention; at the time there was no museum or live detonation that aspiring Atomic Tourists could enjoy. For decades, employees of the Nevada Test Site -- the Connecticut-size chunk of land north of Las Vegas on which America blew up its atom bombs -- were forbidden by national security to speak about their work.

According to Joseph Kent, Director of Curation and Exhibits, the museum got its start in part due to "a fear among former and retiring test workers -- who became our board of trustees, the Nevada Test and Historical Foundation -- that the further away we got from testing, the more people were going to forget the stories, forget the work they did. And also forget how incredibly powerful and dangerous these bombs can be."

In 1992, the veil of secrecy lifted, and a public museum coalesced to open in 2005. It was designated as a National Museum in 2012 by an act of Congress, and became affiliated with the Smithsonian (part of a network of high quality collections and programs, not funded by your tax dollars. unlike the bombs themselves).

Tunnel to Ground Zero Theater.
Tunnel to Ground Zero Theater.

The museum's spacious lobby displays replicas of the first atomic bombs, and the ticket booth is a replica of a Nevada Test Site guard station. Once you "clear security" (i.e. pay admission) you can enter, past a life-size statue of "Miss Atomic Bomb of 1957." Tour guides wear white lab coats.

The museum takes you through the sometimes bizarre history of nuclear experimentation in Nevada. Displays explain the BERN Tower experiments, which hung lumps of powerfully radioactive cobalt above a simulated Japanese village; the moon buggy trials that went on in the bomb craters of Yucca Flats; and the farm on which barnyard animals were exposed to radiation to learn how much a human-size animal could stand, and to "evaluate food chain safeguard measures that can be taken in event of nuclear war." In other words: how much radioactive cow is okay to eat?

Pop culture display.
Pop culture display.

For such a disturbing topic, with endless possibilities to offend, Joe noted how context is key: "On some artifacts, we emphasize that there is language from the time -- not necessarily reflective of us, but it's still, you know, it's from that time period."

We'd visited the museum in 2006, soon after it opened, returning in 2023, just before Hollywood's Barbieheimer-geddon, when Joe Kent was already noticing an uptick in visitation. Public interest, he said, "kind of ebbs and flows based on what's going on in the world." Fukushima and HBO's Chernobyl exposed more of the public's otherwise torpid cooling rods -- and then there was anxiety about Ukraine/Russia, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel/Iran. The museum offers curious (and possibly anxious) visitors a refresher on fission versus fusion, or non-ionizing versus ionizing radiation, while searing eyeballs with a deft blend of science, war, existential horror, pop culture and kitsch.

Trinitite - 1945 desert blast glass.
Trinitite - 1945 desert blast glass.

The first thing we did on our visit was to pose Doug's Nuclear Family 80-something Mom with Miss Atomic Bomb.

When Can We See The Next Nuke?

The entry gallery starts with a quick overview of Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, and the appalling notion of the Axis building their own A-bomb. But from that cloud of dread, visitors walk into the comic relief of the Atomic Age Gallery: 1950s-era atomic comic books, juice glasses, Christmas ornaments.

Much at the Atomic Testing Museum makes nuclear energy seem exciting and fun. Ground Zero Theater, for example, is a simulated Nevada Test Site bunker that startles you with rumbling seats and loud blasts of air -- not hot air, which the museum felt would be too realistic -- when the bomb explodes. Our Nuclear Family Mom is genuinely startled when her perm (which eerily resembles a puffy white A-bomb mushroom cloud), is blown back and flattened by the force of the theater blast.

Locals "are often surprised that Nevada had a role at all in nuclear testing," said Joe. "People think in New Mexico, of course (Home of the Trinity Site, ground zero for the first atomic bomb test explosion in 1945). People think of the Pacific because of Godzilla." But they don't, he said, think of the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada National Security Site, which conducted 928 total nuclear tests.

J.C. Penney catalog of injured mannikins.
J.C. Penney catalog of injured mannikins.

Another misunderstanding, said Joe, is that only 100 of those tests were atmospheric shots; the other 828 from 1964 to 1992 were underground. "And so people assume when they come through our doors that when we talk about nuclear testing, it's all mushroom clouds."

Are citizens misinformed? Blame Hollywood for choosing the nuclear option too often in SciFi and superhero films...

"I got picked up by Uber," said Joe, "and the driver was talking about the Oppenheimer movie and saying 'I heard that they actually detonated a bomb for the movie.' I was really confused, trying to understand what he was talking about. I said 'No, they haven't tested a nuclear bomb in the traditional sense since 1992. There's no way that could have happened -- there would be war crimes brought against them.'"

Trinity and the First Tests

Basement bomb shelter.
Basement bomb shelter.

The Atomic Museum first rolled out its exhibit "Trinity, the Day of the World Changed" exhibit in July 2020. The first nuclear bomb detonation was on July 16, 1945, in a remote patch of northern New Mexico. The gallery endeavors to join the dots between Los Alamos, NM and the later Nevada testing range.

"We'd learned from school groups coming through, a perceived and truly -- it was kind of astounding to us -- increased lack of understanding of what World War II was, what the Manhattan Project was." (Did the Americans really fight the British? No.) "We'd ask them, you know, raise your hand if you know what the Manhattan Project is. And you didn't get too many hands. You saw less and less hands over the years." Not every visitor was unaware. "We get retired history buffs, scientists and engineers, testing worker family members." Still education was needed.

Visitors that take their time to read the displays find many rewards. For example, a tableau of a family of mannequins are arranged around a television set. Showroom dummies in testing range suburbia have become a movie trope, from the Hills Have Eyes to late stage Indiana Jones. But dummies actually did populate a "Doom Town" on March 17, 1953, a 16-kiloton bomb above-ground civil effects test codenamed "Annie," detonated next to a fake hamlet of suburban homes with cars (donated by Ford and Chrysler) and furniture. Museum visitors flip through a laminated catalog of manniken "Before" and "After" photos. Fifty mannikins provided by the L.A. Darling Company were dressed in clothing donated by J.C. Penney -- the Vegas Penney manager pointed out were "now on display at our store for your inspection." A subsequent test in 1955 was the last of the dummy deployments.

Survivors and Downwinders

Atomic rocket engine.
Atomic rocket engine.

The Trinity exhibit also presents artifacts from the bombed cities in Japan (Did America really fight Japan in WWII? Yes.) There are a couple of roof tiles from Hiroshima, and window glass, and the story of 2-year old survivor Sadako Sasaki and her origami cranes is recounted. "We have a yearly testimonial series with survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, in partnership with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. We've also featured downwinders here in Nevada and Utah telling their stories about how their family or friends were impacted by the testing. And so we always want to make sure that we are telling those stories in our exhibits and educational programming."

Clean Up Your Mess

Along with chronicling the vagaries of vaporization, the museum strives for broader education with galleries such as The Bomb Without The Boom, and Stewards of the Land. "Our exhibits talk about the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management cleanup efforts, the various nuclear sites," said Joe. There are also exhibits on peaceful uses of nuclear power, advances in nuclear medicine, and future opportunities. "Something has to power that Moon base."

Mushroom Cloud Showgirl

Buy a souvenir Fat Man shirt for someone you love.
Buy a souvenir Fat Man shirt for someone you love.

Despite the critical mass of weighty topics raised in the Atomic Museum, Joe said that it continues to attract plenty of visitors who are into it mostly for the cultural celebrity of the bomb. "We still lean into the pop culture aspect. We try to strike the balance where it doesn't get into the tasteless territory," he said. "One of our hoodies in the gift shop is a schematic, basically, of an atomic bomb, but we made sure that it doesn't have any off-color comment that may offend." Miss Atomic Bomb first appeared in a 1952 newspaper as Miss Atomic Blast, a Vegas casino dancer "radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles." The 1957 version remains an enduring symbol of fusion between science and showgirls, available on myriad museum souvenirs.

The atom bomb earrings we saw for sale in 2006 are long gone.

Joe noted plans for more exhibits, more on the unintended effects of testing, the status of weapons and facilities, or people affected. "Part of why we focus more on what's going on today than we have in the past is because you get a lot of those questions," he said. The nuclear displays end with a piece of the Berlin Wall, circa 1989, and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as a nuclear superpower.

"Once you get to the Berlin Wall in our museum, it sort of stops," said Joe. "So what happens after?"

Also see: Las Vegas - Mighty Mutant

Atomic Museum

755 E. Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas, NV
South side of downtown. I-15 exit onto Hwy 592 (Flamingo Rd.), then east about 1.5 miles. South side of the road, just past Paradise Rd.
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $29.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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