The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Museum: Place of the Muses

Our Museum archives house mainly memories of those who have passed into the "place of the muses" where we hope and expect them to live on in words and images. We will begin in this issue to initiate conversations about our country's current deconstruction of history and awkward relationships to museums, where some groups are over-represented and some under-represented or not represented at all. The groups who have been treated as minorities may even be averse to what is now being called cultural appropriation. The degree of conflict and resentment around the issue of museums and depicting history is so intense now as to require, perhaps, not shouting matches but delicate approaches to what we think we own. In this we may need to study aboriginal perspectives where ownership belongs to nature, each "thing" owning itself, and is treated with respect and even reverence: attitudes we all could use now.

Did I say "delicate" approach? Looks like that may not work in this article about the Atomic Testing Museum. Oh, well. Next time.


While some museums are interesting only to certain groups of people, and others are merely a pleasant diversion on a Sunday afternoon, there are those that I believe should be required destinations for everyone. The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas is certainly one of the latter.

Located off the Vegas strip in a building and parking lot of its own, it is one of only thirty-seven “National” museums in America and is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute. Created in 2005, it has a modern and sophisticated layout. As one wanders around inside, the eye immediately meets all manner of interesting objects, from whole rockets to disarmed warheads, Geiger counters and pop culture phenomena (as related to the atomic age), gadgets and instruments one can feel and play with, and many other visually appealing and tactile displays, including Native American artifacts and an Area 51 exhibit. Area 51, for those who may not know, is a highly classified, heavily guarded facility belonging to the U. S. Air Force within the Nevada Test and Training Range that generates all sorts of suspicions related to a purported alien landing and to secret weapon development.

But beyond just being a nifty Vegas museum that also has creative t-shirts and such in the gift shop, the National Atomic Testing Museum tells a comprehensive and interactive story about the history of nuclear weapons, which for some reason seem to have lost their impact (pardon the pun) on America’s consciousness. We’re aware they exist, of course, especially now that we’re once again on the verge of using them in conflict, but Americans in general don’t seem to be overly concerned. They take our military “superiority” for granted and assume that if North Korea attempts to use their weapons on us, we’ll just use our superior ones to spank them and send them to bed without supper as if they were some sort of misbehaving children (and the frighteningly childish behavior exhibited on the world stage of late is not helping the situation). I would argue that this cavalier attitude has come full circle over the years.

It all should have ended after we dropped atomic bombs on Japan in WWII. The results were so horrifying, they should have been permanently burned into the world’s collective consciousness. This was before literally everyone had a portable video camera in their pocket, however, and most people only saw what was aired on evening network television. We saw the mushroom cloud, of course, and flattened buildings, but not much of the radiation sickness and cancer that made it so much more personal. Instead of shelving this horrible weapon forever, we doubled down and got into a race with the Soviet Union to see who could build bigger and better and faster and more. Despite what our scientists saw of Japan, they didn’t really understand the full extent of the danger. Above-ground testing became commonplace, and the public was invited as constant spectators. We got to watch so many tests in the Pacific at Bikini Atoll that the inventor of the two-piece bathing suit in 1961 capitalized on the obscure island’s growing worldwide popularity (no, the island was not named after the suit).

In the late forties and early fifties, stateside testing in the relatively remote western desert became so popular that families actually watched at a “safe” distance of a few miles with picnics spread and sunglasses on. As the explosions became bigger, stronger and more frequent, the awful effects of fallout started becoming apparent.

In 1953, the U.S. detonated eleven above-ground nuclear devices at a site in Nevada. Three years later, Howard Hughes and CinemaScope teamed up with director Dick Powell and 220 cast and crew to make a film called The Conqueror. He made the terrible decision to spend weeks filming the outdoor scenes 137 miles downwind of the test site (a slightly worse decision than casting John Wayne as Ghengis Kahn). Wayne and his two sons walked around the film site with a Geiger counter that indicated high levels of radiation, but since the government assured them it was safe, they commenced filming. The director and a co-star died of cancer just a few years after the film’s release. Wayne, Susan Heyward, and another co-star died of cancer. Wayne’s two sons had to have cancerous growths removed, and members of Heyward’s family who visited the set had similar issues. All in all, nearly half of the 220 cast and crew developed some form of cancer, and a quarter of the whole crew died from it.

One could certainly argue that cigarette smoke played a part in all of this (Wayne in particular was a notorious smoker, and smoking was quite prevalent at the time). Yet the cancer rate here was three times the national average. Hughes was so consumed with guilt he bought all the prints of the film and locked them away; they were only re-released in 1979 when Columbia bought them back from his estate.

This and other incidents caused scientists to begin to catch on to the unforeseen extreme dangers of nuclear weapons, and when Russia “caught up” to us and the arms race began in earnest, the picnics stopped and genuine fear set in. This stopped above-ground testing, which the Russians also agreed to, but both then shifted to underground testing as if that was somehow safe. The museum has a huge section devoted to the incredibly complex process of such detonations. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early sixties got EVERYONE’S attention, Hollywood started releasing high-budget “what if” films (I highly recommend Fail-Safe starring Larry Hagman and Henry Fonda, and Dr. Strangelove starring Peter Sellers and the immortal Slim Pickens, both released in 1964 and covering two very different takes on the situation).

I’ll skip over Vietnam here (a war with conventional weapons, like the 1950-53 Korean conflict; both are in themselves deserving of a much longer treatment) and return to the early 1980s, a time when I was growing up and potential nuclear war had most people’s fear elevated from concerned to absolutely paranoid. The Cold War with the dreaded Soviet Union was at its height. The Berlin Wall had not come down yet; we had no idea at the time that resistance was actually crumbling from within.

The Russians seemed far bigger and more powerful than the U. S. I remember as a 12-year-old saving my allowance, and instead of buying toys or comic books, I purchased a huge illustrated coffee table book called Soviet Military Power, and spent the next few years memorizing every single helicopter, plane, missile, tank, ship, personnel carrier and uniform I might at any time see over the horizon or lurking behind the nearest bush. My acquaintances thought I was crazy, or perhaps a commie, for knowing about more than OUR military, but once I convinced them of the logic in the injunction to “know thine enemy” we sat around endlessly matching our forces against theirs as if we were playing some deadly version of fantasy football. In these games America always won, of course, but deep down I wasn’t so sure.

Hollywood didn’t help much; in addition to continuing the trend of making intense movies about mistakes nearly starting WWIII (1983’s Wargames with Matthew Broderick was huge), they also threw in a healthy dose of propaganda, the most blatant and effective version being 1984’s Red Dawn, starring Patrick Swayze and most of the Brat Pack. That movie was basically our “what if they invaded” fantasies brought to life on celluloid, and its disturbing yet rousing impact on society in a flag-waving way cannot be understated.

The movie that had the most impact though, in my opinion, was the 1983 uber-depressing made-for-TV film The Day After. Remember, there were only three channels, so when a major prime-time release was on TV, EVERYBODY watched it. The film was set in Lawrence, Kansas, and it depicted what small-town America would look like after a nuclear attack. Bringing to life characters that were wandering around hopelessly in Nuclear Winter while dying at various speeds of radiation poisoning was something that the American public had not previously been exposed to, and it served drastically to heighten our paranoia (a similar 1984 British film Threads set in Liverpool was even more graphic and disturbing, and also was aired in prime time here).

President Reagan got to watch an advance screening of The Day After and wrote this in his diary on October 10, 1983:

Columbus Day. In the morning at Camp D. I ran the tape of the movie ABC is running on the air Nov. 20. It’s called “The Day After.” It has Lawrence, Kansas wiped out in a nuclear war with Russia. It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed. So far they haven’t sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled & I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the “anti-nukes” or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.

Remember, 7 million was a LOT back then for a TV movie— he wasn’t being sarcastic. In a November 18 entry he wrote:

George [Shultz] is going on ABC right after its big Nuclear bomb film Sunday night. We know it’s “anti-nuke” propaganda but we’re going to take it over & say it shows why we must keep on doing what we’re doing.

To those of us who can’t fathom why anyone ever thought he was a good President, I will say that Reagan made people feel safe during this extremely tense time. The perception was that with him at the helm, and the “Star Wars” satellite missile defense system he was so fond of supposedly under rapid development, we weren’t gonna take any crap from those evil Rooskies.

Now, one could ALSO argue that much of the tension in the first place was caused by accelerating the arms race, and that we were all so distracted by this that we bought into “Trickle-down economics,” which many point to as a factor in the decline of the American middle-class, but that wasn’t something much thought of then. We were scared, and when he finished off his second term by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” in 1989, and we got to see the symbolic collapse of communism on national TV, we felt we had WON the Cold War and that he could do no wrong.

Back to my original point. Since the Berlin Wall came down and Russia was exposed as a crumbling nation, Americans seem to have forgotten about the potential horror of a nuclear holocaust. It’s as if we assumed all these weapons got deactivated and thrown into a trash can somewhere, except for ours and those of our allies. There have been PLENTY of apocalypse shows and movies and video games since then, but they’re almost all about Aliens or Zombies or some other premises that while perhaps technically possible, aren’t anywhere near likely.

There are almost two full generations of Americans who have never known fear of nukes. Now that we’re being threatened with nuclear war again, it’s almost being treated as a joke, like we’re going to kick North Korea’s ass and China’s and Russia’s, too, if they give us any crap, because we’ve got more aircraft carriers and submarines. Have you seen the Navy commercials? The knowledge that NOBODY wins a nuclear war seems as if it’s no longer knowledge, and that’s extremely frightening to me. This is why places like the Atomic Testing Museum are so incredibly important, especially now.

Walking among the exhibits recently I heard people saying, “Wow, I had no idea … did you?” to each other, and I watched young people coming out of the aftershock simulator (named “Ground Zero Theater”) wide-eyed, not with the “cool” factor but with awe and respect. Extensive education in this area is a must, especially now that the world stage is so unstable, including nuclear launch codes.

I advise everyone reading this to spend a day at the museum, and bring as many young people along as possible. I wish it were a mandatory destination for school trips. The last thing any of us need is to re-live the final scene of The Day After when the two remaining characters find a few radiation-poisoned candy bars in a blown-up convenience store and wander off into the wasteland cackling and trying with toothless gums to eat them.


Here is a link to a September 13, 2017, article in the NYPost about Area 51.

Air Force Won't Say What Happened in Fatal Area 51 Crash

The first three photos below are ones I made on the trip. The other three are in the public domain on the Internet.

The Nifty Part


Nuclear Weapon

Filming Nuclear Testing

Tourists Watching Nuclear Testing

Mesmerizing Horror


Copyright 2017, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.