The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, is the only congressionally chartered museum exploring this topic in the US. A Smithsonian Affiliate, it tells the story of the Atomic Age, from early research into nuclear development through to modern uses of nuclear technology.
The museum was first established in 1969. It is a place where guests can learn how nuclear science has influenced and continues to influence the world. Through a variety of permanent and changing exhibits and displays, it presents the diverse applications of nuclear science in the past, present and future. It also tells the stories of some of the pioneers in this field.
An arts background
James Walther has been the director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History since 1996. He tells blooloop:
“I have been in the museum business now for 44 years. I have a degree in fine arts, even though I run our nation’s nuclear science museum. My background is in visual arts. I’ve always been an artist, since I was a little boy. I’m still an artist now and I’m still actively painting landscapes.”
“Back then, when I got my college degree, there weren’t very many Master’s level programmes that helped people to move into the museum world, and, in fact, I really didn’t know very much about the museum world, other than going to museums and spending time in them occasionally as a kid. I took a job right out of college as an art teacher. I was working in outreach work, going out into the communities.
“This was in my home state, West Virginia. That state is very rural, and it’s also pretty impoverished in a lot of ways. There are lots of people who live below the poverty line and in very remote parts of this state. I was teaching fine arts to children who had never visited a museum and didn’t know very much about art. Then I became an exhibit designer, designing exhibits in science museums, before moving into administration.”
The broad field of nuclear science
In 1996, Walther moved to New Mexico to be the director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.
“I’ve been here now for 26 years. It’s been a wonderful time and a time of learning. In the museum field, you have to learn everything. You don’t know a lot about the things you’re doing, so you have to be committed to learning about them.”
He has become, inevitably, very interested in nuclear science:
“It’s such a broad field, whether it’s in power generation, health physics, medicine, or in the history of the defence of the nations, or the Manhattan project. Some of that started here in New Mexico, with Los Alamos National Laboratory.”
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a short distance northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is a United States Department of Energy laboratory, initially set up during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project.
Advances in medicine
In terms of nuclear medicine, he comments:
“There has been been a huge amount of work in the multi-modalities of nuclear medical efforts. Not only in therapy but also in diagnostics. It’s a huge part of the field. Around 75,000 people every day in the US experience nuclear science through medical applications in hospitals. Diagnostic applications prevent quite a lot of invasive surgeries to find out what’s going on with someone.”
“I read and read, and went to conferences, and met many wonderful people who have helped me to learn.
“It’s a very topical subject, too, in some ways, because of climate change issues. It is beginning to dawn on people that we can’t combat global warming and climate change with renewables alone. Not at the level of development that they are today. Someday, perhaps, they will have more capacity or more efficiency. But for now nuclear is the only carbon-free energy resource that has sufficient capacity.
“Between an increased recognition of that by the public and the environmental movement, and the issues in Ukraine where we’re confronting Russian aggression that might lead to a new arms race, it’s a very topical museum.”
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History has a huge remit and covers a large spectrum of topics. However, he points out:
“We have a large museum here. It’s not large by standards of giant museums like the Smithsonian, although we are an affiliate of the Smithsonian, but it’s the biggest of its kind in the world.”
The museum’s collection comprises 22,000 artefacts. Additionally:
“We have exhibits about pretty much anything you can think of that’s nuclear-related,” he says. “For instance, we have exhibitions about nuclear medicine, radiology, the Manhattan Project, nuclear power, uranium mining, and fuel fabrication.”
“We are a place where the general public comes to learn about these topics; one of the things we’ve driven for, here at the museum, is to make something as daunting as nuclear science not be frightening.
“You can imagine that somebody might say, ‘Well, I’d love to stop and see that nuclear museum, but it’ll make me feel stupid. I’m sure I won’t understand nuclear physics, and it’ll just make me feel dumb.’
“We have tried to make it something that everybody can understand, enjoy, and learn something about – and we have been told that’s what we’ve achieved.”
Addressing perceptions of nuclear science
Nuclear science’s depiction in popular culture is not always positive, something the museum seeks to address. Walther explains:
“We meet people wherever they are. We have a nuclear culture exhibit, too. This helps people to appreciate the breadth of how the world discovered nuclear energy, and what it meant to elements of our popular culture from movies and books to comic books, toys, games, automobiles, and all kinds of things.
“In addition, we also deal with people who are sceptical about the presence of nuclear in the world. They are, perhaps, a little bit dubious about whether or not we’re telling the truth.”
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is, however, a private, nonprofit organisation:
“We are not run by the government here. We are striving to present an accurate history and scientific portrayal. So, we aren’t trying to talk about issues that are untrue, and we’re not required to say something because it’s what the government says. We do what we should be doing, which is tell the truth, and we have a board of directors that helps us to meet that goal.”
Visitors at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
The museum has a large audience:
“We run the biggest summer camp in the city of Albuquerque here, for kids from 5 to 13 years. It isn’t necessarily highly focused on nuclear science; it’s more generally STEM-oriented. Kids learn about aviation and rockets, robots, coding, and computers: it’s very broad. We also have a lot of school children who visit the museum and go to our programmes during the year.
“Now that we’ve passed through COVID, for the most part, a lot of our field trip experiences are coming back.”
The museum also runs Nuclear Science Week worldwide in nine countries worldwide. An international, broadly observed week-long celebration to focus local, regional and international interest on all aspects of nuclear science, Nuclear Science Week educates the public on 5 pillars of nuclear science: Carbon-Free Energy, Global Leadership, Transformative Healthcare, Innovation & Technology, and Space Exploration.
“It is a broad programme that has a general family and education impact. It’s not built like a conventional professional meeting; but much more as a conversation about nuclear and its role in our world, learning about it in a way that is easy to access.”
The Atomic Heritage Foundation
The Museum of Nuclear Science and History also runs the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
Founded in 2002, the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) is a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. It successfully led efforts to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
In 2019, the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History forged a partnership to preserve the history of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age, ensuring the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s extensive collection about the Manhattan Project and its legacy will remain available to the public for the foreseeable future.
“We run the Atomic Heritage Foundation web systems, as well as the Nuclear Science Week and our own websites,” he says. “We get 150,000 hits a month.”
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and COVID-19
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the museum pivoted to deploying more digital content:
“Luckily for us, we had just stepped into a bigger and broader digital role, partnering with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. We had partnered with them in the past, but they were moving into a time when some of their senior leaders were retiring. They were looking for a place where that digital content could live in perpetuity and would be cared for.”
“As this is the National Museum, we were the right place to care for that history and make it available to the public. We had started that programme when COVID hit. So, we were able to use and build on those elements, as well as making some new things to go out to our general public, our members, and the programmes that people participate in. The timing was serendipity, really.”
Something for everybody
Walther’s background as an artist and exhibition designer informs the way the exhibits at the museum are displayed. He explains:
“My background in the museum business was to move my artistic skills and design into exhibition design, where you have to learn about things in order to figure out how to make something that’s interactive, or how to break down something as difficult as, say, human genetics or nuclear science into something where the general public can find a place from which they can learn from it and enjoy it.”
“That’s why this museum, I think, has succeeded: because it’s not what they call an ‘insider museum’.”
He expands on this:
“Insider museums are those where you need to have a basic content understanding, or you won’t really enjoy it. At this one, you can find something for anybody. No matter their age or range of interests, there’s something for everyone. There’s a lot of interactivity, and a broad variety of exhibits.”
Outside, there are aeroplanes on display:
“We have a B-52 in the backyard,” he says. “We have one of the B-29s that was one of the 15 planes that were prepared for the Japan mission to end World War II. Also, we have rockets, we have cannons, we have the top of a nuclear submarine in the back of the museum. We have a 12-acre site, with something for everyone.
“My design experience, I think, has helped me to guide the museum to be something that anybody can enjoy.”
One of the exhibits on display is Critical Assembly, an installation by world-renowned sculptor Jim Sanborn.
Critical Assembly, which recreates the Manhatten Project scientists’ first experiments at Los Alamos to determine when plutonium would ‘go critical’ in an atomic bomb, first opened in 2003 in Washington, DC at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and has travelled to South Korea and Ireland. Walther says:
“We are very honoured to include Jim Sanborn’s work. Critical Assembly, which is an installation art piece that he created 23 or 24 years ago, travelled for a while. Then, when it was seeking a home, we had a donor help us to acquire it and it’s on permanent display here.”
Exploring the Manhattan project & more
The museum also has one of the Heisenberg cubes on loan in its collection. Named after Werner Heisenberg, one of the German physicists who created them, the 664 dense, two-inch charcoal-black cubes made of pure uranium (of which 13 remain today) were vital components of the Nazis’ plans to build both a nuclear reactor and an atomic bomb.
“664 cubes were confiscated by the US Army from the Nazis. We don’t know what happened to many of them, but we have one of them here. These objects are the existential threat that caused the scientific community to move to ask the United States President to put forth an effort to create the Manhattan project. We have a lot of things here that deal with that topic.”
“We have a lot of artefacts. This includes Oppenheimer’s Packard limousine, which the Army made for the scientists to ride back and forth in between the Trinity test and Los Alamos.”
The 1941 Packard Clipper transported physicists, senior officers, and dignitaries from the train station to Los Alamos, and to the Trinity base camp for the testing of the first atomic bomb.
“In 2005, we found the car left out in a salvage yard in the desert. It had been sitting there for 60 years before it was rediscovered, and we got it restored.”
Further powerfully thought-provoking exhibits include Little Boy and Fat Man. These were the weapons dropped, respectively, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945:
“We have concurrent copies of Fat Man and Little Boy,” he says. “These are not models made later; they’re real. We also have the only full-scale replica of the Trinity test tower in our backyard. People can understand that in that timeframe.”
The mission of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
The museum’s function, Walther contends, is to inspire, and to create the sense that there’s an opportunity ahead. He explains:
“Sometimes, the world looks a little dire. There’s a lot going on; there’s political strife, and there’s war in Europe, something I never thought we’d see. These are things that can be quite frightening, especially to children. Yet the way out of some of these dilemmas, like the climate issues that will confront younger people, is through learning about STEM. There are solutions that can be devised and created by bright people who remain positive about a future for our world.”
“The role of this museum is to get those kids excited; to make them become interested in the technologies of our future so that someday they can solve those issues for us when we’re all gone.
“There is a thing that we confront sometimes called the ‘summer slide’. In the summertime, it’s time to rest and have fun with your family and go swimming and go camping, but kids don’t have the opportunity to study, so their education slides backwards a little bit. Our programme helps kids stay focused, and enjoy staying focused, over the summertime.”
The museum has a number of plans in the pipeline.
“We have requested to get some additional acreage to the south of the museum’s campus, where we hope to build the National Energy Stem Education Centre.
“As a private nonprofit, we have to raise the millions that we need to build it. But if we can get people and companies to help us do it, we will be able to take the technologies in New Mexico at the national laboratories, the military programmes, and in the universities, and use those with our partners, sending them out to teachers and students across the globe.”
“STEM often takes a while, which can be a problem. There can be 10 years between one of the big laboratories making a discovery, and a kid learning about it. We could shorten that down to four or five years. Kids would learn faster, and we’d have better solutions more quickly.”
Expanding the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
There are also plans to build two additional wings on the museum:
“One is a science wing, where we want to add exhibits about fusion. The other is a history wing.”
“We own the largest collection of atomic weapons that are unclassified in the world here; around 128 of them. Many are on display, but not all of them. We want to tell more about the stories in those areas. Our aim is to help people to learn about how dire it was during the Cold War so that we never have that again.”
Plus, there are plans to grow and evolve the digital strategy:
“We have a plan for a bigger endowment to make sure we can continue to provide our services in the future,” Walther says, adding:
“And, of course, we have some functional changes, with a change of leadership. I’ve been the director for 26 years. So, my time is coming closer to a closure point, where I’ll be turning the reins of this place over to younger staff. I’m excited to go on and give my time to being an artist.”
More projects to come
For those seeking further information, he stresses, the museum and its associated projects have a number of websites. These include its home website as well as nuclearscienceweek.org. There is also the Atomic Heritage Foundation, at https://www.atomicheritage.org/, and Voices of the Manhatten Project at https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/.
A further project, Voices of the Cold War, is in the planning stage:
“We’ll be talking not only to those who did military work but those who worked in the laboratories and technology fields during the times after World War I,” he explains. “We’ll be covering the Korean conflict and Vietnam, both times of very high anxiety for our world.”
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is open seven days a week, nine to five.