SANTA FE, N.M. — The origins of New Mexico’s history surrounding the atomic bomb can be traced back to Robert Oppenheimer’s long-time love of the Land of Enchantment.
Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known today as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” who headed the secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, began visiting New Mexico in the 1920s.
After he was diagnosed with dysentery at age 22, his Harvard English professor brought him and his brother to a dude ranch in Pecos where he was supposed to regain his strength through horseback riding and camping.
After that, he and his brother returned almost every summer, according to Melanie LaBorwit, educator at the New Mexico History Museum.
So when he became involved in early talks for the secret World War II research project to create and test the world’s first nuclear weapons, and officials were searching for somewhere isolated and easily securable, Oppenheimer knew the ideal place.
“He had been camping on the Pajarito Plateau numerous times,” LaBorwit said of the area that would later become the city of Los Alamos. “(He knew) there was one road in there and one road out.”
Since the start of the Manhattan Project 75 years ago, New Mexico has played a part not just in the creation of the atomic bomb, but also in what LaBorwit called the “whole nuclear cycle.”
An exhibition exploring this progression, “Atomic Histories,” will be on display at the museum starting Sunday and running until May 2019.
“From mining to enrichment to military application (to) scientific application,” said LaBorwit, the show’s curator. “There’s all kind of innovation about this kind of science. It’s not just limited to the bomb.”
The exhibition coincides with the Santa Fe Opera’s production this summer of “Dr. Atomic,” which takes place in Los Alamos in 1945 leading up to the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site outside Alamogordo.
Most museum visitors will come to the show knowing the relevance to the nuclear mission of places like the bomb site and Los Alamos, and maybe Santa Fe, where scientists and workers on the Manhattan Project checked in.
But LaBowit said they may not realize the planes that dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taken afterward to the air force base in Roswell; that Eunice is the site of one of the country’s uranium enrichment facilities; or that Albuquerque was home to espionage when Manhattan Project employee David Greenglass was recruited to share atomic secrets.
“It’s like the whole state has been involved in our atomic history,” she said.
The exhibition’s timeline begins in the World War II/Manhattan Project era and ends in the present with the reopening of Carlsbad’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which was closed after radioactive contamination from a stored waste drum that burst in 2014.
Covering the decades in between, the show delves into New Mexico’s Cold War era, breaking it down into three periods: the rise of the Civil Defense system, the forming of New Mexico’s two national labs (Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories), and the uranium mining boom in what was later labeled the Grants Mining District. About 80 mines throughout north and western New Mexico were closed by the 1990s.
The exhibition includes photos, books, artifacts and models borrowed from Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Los Alamos’ Historical Society and Bradbury Science Museum, the Grants’ Mining Museum and LANL’s archives.
Visitors will see Cold War instructional videos advising citizens what to do during an atomic attack, a life-size recreation of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945 and part of the “MANIAC,” a Los Alamos-created, computer-like machine made to calculate missile projection. From today, there’s a model of a transport truck that carries nuclear waste to WIPP.
Demonstrating an artistic view of the history are two installations made in the 1990s by artist Meridel Rubenstein. “The Meeting” features photos of people and items from the two worlds that intersected at a tea room in World War II-era Los Alamos, one of scientists and the other of San Ildefonso Pueblo residents. The other installation, titled “Oppenheimer’s Chair,” features a crystal chair with various imagery projecting onto the chair and glass walls.
Other exhibition items, LaBorwit said, have never been put on display. Those include a sample of trinitite, a new mineral that was created at the Trinity detonation site; old door-to-door salesman models of fallout shelters sold during the Cold War; and an envelope addressed to the famous P.O. Box 1663, the only box for all of Los Alamos’ residents during the Manhattan Project.
“It’s so emblematic of that experience,” she said of the discovered envelope. “Everything was so secret.”
LaBorwit said it was important for her to include personal stories from those who bore witness to New Mexico’s nuclear stories.
There are panels for Edith Warner, the owner of a tea room that Oppenheimer allowed to remain on site at Los Alamos to serve as what LaBorwit called an “island of normalcy” for scientists; Soccoro native and photographer Berlyn Brixner, who shot the first detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity (his high-speed camera will be on display in the exhibition); and Laguna Pueblo miner and activist Dorothy Purley, who informed Native Americans, the main demographic that worked in the uranium mines, of health dangers before she died of cancer in 1999.
The personal narratives add a human element to what LaBorwit acknowledged is a “complex,” difficult subject for many. She said the show is not meant to make any political statement or debate whether the U.S. military should or shouldn’t have used the bomb.
She said the goal is simply to put all of the information out there, including how the nuclear mission has shaped New Mexico culture and economy, with backstory and context.
And in an age when the potential for nuclear warfare is making its way back into the news, she views knowledge of history as empowerment for those seeking to better understand what’s going on today.
“In some ways, with this exhibit, we want people to think,” she said. “We want people to be proud of what people accomplished and the innovations that were made in the last seven decades of research that has gone on here in New Mexico. But it raises as many questions as it answers.”