LOS ALAMOS – During the time of the Manhattan Project, planes dropped incendiary devices that drifted into the canyons around the Pajarito Plateau while researchers practiced photographic techniques that would help them get an accurate visual record of the first explosion of an atomic bomb.
One worker retrieved a parachute that had been attached to one of those devices and sent the white silk off to his fiancée. You can see the wedding dress Eleanor Bartlett made from that parachute if you head over to the grand re-opening today of the Los Alamos History Museum.
The museum has been closed since November 2015, when all the exhibits were moved out, and construction on improvements started in February, according to Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society. The museum got updated plumbing, electrical and climate control systems, a new entryway and other measures to improve ADA compliance through the $2 million project.
It also is re-opening with all brand-new exhibits in its 2,400 square feet, along with an additional building, the Hans Bethe House, whose 1,400 square feet will open to the public for the first time with exhibits concentrating on the Cold War and the Los Alamos contribution to arms control efforts.
An artwork by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto in that building uses flashing lights and beeps on a world map to illustrate the number and location of atomic/nuclear bombs exploded from 1945 to 1998. They total 2,053 and the artwork takes more than 14 minutes to represent them all.
On that house’s patio door, a sign tells us that on July 16, 1945, Elsie McMillan and Lois Bradbury looked out of one of the windows to see the flash of the early-morning atomic explosion more than 200 miles away.
People, not bombs
Los Alamos’ history – its entire existence, in fact – is intimately tied to the development of the atomic bomb. Obviously, then, that’s a big part of the museum’s exhibits, but the story is told from a human point of view. There’s another museum in town to explore the science and the lab (the Bradbury Science Museum), McClenahan pointed out; she wants to tell you about the people and what it was like to live there.
So the history time line starts with the ancestral Puebloans, up through the time of the Los Alamos Ranch School (familiarly called the boys ranch) and into the present. That’s in the main museum, called the Guest House, because that was one of its uses during the boys ranch days. After all, if parents wanted to visit their sons there, they faced a four-hour drive one-way from Santa Fe, which probably had some of the nearest overnight accommodations.
“It’s the oldest continuously used building that was with the ranch,” McClenahan said, explaining that its first section was built for an infirmary with an east-facing portal, sometime around 1918-22. When Fuller Lodge was built in 1928, the infirmary was moved there and the older building was converted into a guest cottage. It saw many additions and renovations since then, including the raising of the entire building in 1967 so it could get a new foundation.
A pottery disc made by famed San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez is embedded in a fireplace chimney in the oldest section, which also displays a polychrome pitcher by the esteemed artist, decorated with the boys ranch logo.
That year-round ranch school was attended by sons of people with means – in today’s dollars, annual tuition was about $36,000 – and its philosophy was that, with the closing of the frontier, boys needed both a classical education and something to toughen them up. So during its years of operation, from 1917 to 1942, you’d see the youths sleeping on screened porches and wearing shorts year-round – even while playing hockey on the frozen pond, according to McClenahan.
An interactive display invites visitors to learn about people with Los Alamos connections, including those boys ranch students – a list of luminaries that included writers William Burroughs and Gore Vidal, the latter of whom, McClenahan quipped, “attended the ranch school for a year, never came back, and never had anything good to say about Los Alamos.”
One luminary who did not attend the school, contrary to popular belief, was Robert Oppenheimer. The physicist was aware of the school because he came summers to a cabin, first a rental and then purchased by his family, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that they called Perro Caliente, since the young Oppenheimer said “hot dog!” when he first saw it, according to McClenahan.
But it was Oppenheimer’s familiarity with the area – his “desire to combine his love for physics with his love for New Mexico,” as McClenahan phrased it – the led him to convince military leaders to locate their new secret base up in the Jemez Mountains.
Stepping down a ramp in the Guest House, visitors will come face to face with one of the first sights seen by Manhattan Project workers when they arrived in Santa Fe to receive their assignment: the gate to 109 E. Palace Ave., where Dorothy McKibben told them what they needed to know. Pick up the receiver of an old black telephone and dial a number, and you’ll hear a recorded oral history from a person who was around at the time.
Nearby, you can see gold dental plates that were worn by a scientist exposed to radiation in an accident that killed physicist Louis Slotin during the Manhattan Project. The fillings in the teeth of people present in that room, McClenahan said, absorbed so much radiation that they had to wear the dental covering to prevent that radiation from burning sores in their mouths.
Many of the displays include questions for visitors to ponder, since there’s only so much that can fit in the limited space, McClenahan said. For instance, what would it take for you to move to an outpost far from home that lacked many conveniences of the time? And in a contemplative space that shows images from the Trinity Test and taped recollections of people who witnessed it, clipboards on the wall ask visitors to give their thoughts on issues such as a scientist’s moral responsibility in developing weapons of mass destruction.
The museum includes more than one building along Bathtub Row, as well as one of the three homestead cabins remaining in the area and a walking tour with redesigned markers that will be installed in the spring, McClenahan noted.
It has a growing relationship with the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, with an agreement currently in place for the Historical Society to offer visitors interpretive and education programs as well as to help train volunteer docents and rangers in the history of the area, she said.