In the fall of 2006, we wrote an article for Curator: The Museum Journal (“Not Just the Hangars of World War II: American Aviation Museums and the Role of Memorial”). One of the museum curators that we interviewed for the article, Katherine Huit, then of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, described museum-goers as “streakers, strollers, and studiers.” Now, after a few more years of doing this thing we do, we’d like to add one more category. We’re not sure what to call ourselves (and those like us, you know who you are), but we like to think of our efforts as extreme-museum-going.
We don’t just study the scripts on the exhibit plates; we take notes, sometimes lots of notes. The first time we visited the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Doug took down verbatim the text on each plate until his hand cramped, ending up with just over 100 paragraphs of text. We also do drawings, diagrams, and floor layouts and snap photos. The floor layout of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, was actually quite helpful for the Curator article. It wasn’t until we reviewed our notes that we realized that the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, which was constructed at Los Alamos, was surrounded on all sides by aircraft flown by nations of the Axis Powers. The enemy aircraft were so numerous that, at floor level, it was actually impossible to photograph the gleaming, stainless-steel-skinned B-29 without also capturing an Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz, an Aichi M6A1 Seiran, or a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Our overall feeling was that, even in its retirement, the Enola Gay could not be without context and the larger story.
We dive so deeply into each exhibit because we are unsure when we will get back or if we will ever get back to see those artifacts. But that kind of attention to detail can also have an obscuring effect. When we visited the Enola Gay the first time, we missed the forest for the trees. The trees are striking.
On our visit to National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), we decided to pull back a bit from extreme-museum-going, to land closer to studiers on our scale from streakers to the extreme. Not that we don’t peer at the trees, but we’re more interested right now in the story—the forest—than in peeling away the layers of bark of an individual tree or two. Our notebooks are a bit thinner, perhaps because, with a digital camera, we take more photographs.
The natural traffic flow of NMNSH is akin to a timeline of the nuclear experience, beginning with Rutherford and Einstein The story proceeds through the Manhattan Project and the Cold War and ends with the ubiquity of nuclear power plants and the promise of green energy. A quick glance at Doug’s notebook reveals that, by the time he got to the Cold War section, he was just taking down the names of the primary items in each exhibit. Comparing our notebooks, we each have different tidbits with very little overlap.
The Cold War exhibit revealed the remarkable inventiveness that humanity has been willing to demonstrate in the pursuit of destruction. The weapon that really grabs your attention is the SADM (click for related FILM), or Special Atomic Demolition Munition. This is an atomic bomb that was intended to be carried by one or two soldiers. (If you watch the film in the link, that’s the warhead that the swimmer is strapping to his groin. The irony of the symbolism makes you wonder who really had a sense of humor.)
For Anna, this weapon has significant import. Leahy family lore has it that Anna’s father, Andy, scraped paint or rust off nuclear weapons at the Pirmasens Weapons Depot in West Germany, during his time as an enlisted man in the Army. As best as we can tell, it is likely that the SADM was this type of tactical atomic weapon that Andy Leahy would have been working on. Part of this story is the conclusion that Anna’s father reached about the Cold-War-era safety and monitoring measures that his group used: almost non-existent. Each man was issued a film badge dosimeter to affix to his person before descending into the below ground caverns where the weapons were stored. At the end of each week, the men would toss their dosimeters into a large bin. Andy and the other men assumed that no one actually examined the badges. There was certainly no hope of determining their own exposures.
The story of men being asked to scrape blistered, corroded paint off of stored atomic weapons begs belief and current common sense. And yet, in the context of the Cold War, where soldiers were denied access to basic information about atomic weapons and openly exposed to all manner of atomic tests (and the ensuing fallout), it becomes a more plausible story.
Anna’s father died after an extended fight with cancer that was everywhere in the abdomen, all at once, with no site of origin. When Anna’s lawyer mother (her father was also lawyer) attempted to obtain Andy’s service records, she found that his unit’s records had been destroyed in a fire. They had been held in a fire-protected, government document storage building in St. Louis.
The first time that Anna detailed her father’s cancer to Doug, he was reminded of James Gleick’s book Genius and the description of Richard Feynman’s cancer. Standing at NMNSH in front of a weapon that plausibly killed Anna’s father—ironically, by not fulfilling its expressed design—in this place that is, in part, a testament to the of the work of Feynman and thousands of other Los Alamos scientists reminded us of the threads that connect us to history. Threads that have us walking in the footsteps of those who’ve come before us. Whether we know it or not.