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Friday, May 10, 2002

Reopening Museum Wants To Tell Nation's Atomic Story

By Tracy Dingmann
Of the Journal
    When the National Atomic Museum opens Saturday at its new home in Old Town, Fat Man will be there, but Little Boy won't. As a replica of the first of two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan to end World War II, Little Boy had always been considered too primitive to pose any kind of security threat while on display at the museum, said director Jim Walther. The replica weighed five tons and was welded shut.

National Atomic Museum's opening reception
WHEN: 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, May 11. Regular museum hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
WHERE: National Atomic Museum, 1905 Mountain NW
HOW MUCH: Admission to the reception is free. Museum admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and children ages 17 to 6

    Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, which raised fears that terrorists with scarce resources might look to build crude devices much like Little Boy.
    By order of the Department of Energy, the Little Boy replica was removed from the Atomic Museum's then-location on Kirtland Air Force Base and taken to an undisclosed spot within Sandia National Laboratories.
    "They will demilitarize it and make it nonclassified, so the insides will not reveal any information," said Walther. The replica will be returned to the museum whenever that process is done, he said.
    The Fat Man replica was deemed safe as is for the museum to display because it's much more sophisticated and would be hard for amateurs to figure out.
    In the meantime, the Atomic Museum will have plenty to show off. The 33-year-old institution will open at its new location with a ribbon cutting and reception with Mayor Martin Chávez from 9-11 a.m.
    On May 18, it will celebrate Asian American Culture Month with "Unity and Freedom Day" activities, including acupuncture, martial arts and flower arranging demonstrations, along with puppet shows, dancing, food and music.
    In ongoing programming, the Atomic Museum will feature the new exhibit "X is for X-Ray," which the museum built several years ago and sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. In July or August, the museum will mount an exhibit called "What's Hot, What's Not," which demonstrates the level of radiation carried by such items as fertilizer, smoke detectors, kitty litter and various antiques. That exhibit will include a computer that will allow people to enter information about their lives and learn how much radiation they experience daily.
    New programming also includes "softer" features such as the "Zoom Zone," an area for science activities for kids that are tied into the popular PBS children's show. That area will open June 1.
    The museum also will continue showing the plays and movies it had at its old location. It will show the documentary "10 Seconds that Shook the World," as well as a new one produced by KNME-TV called "Commitment to Peace." Outreach programs and a summer camp also will continue.
    The programs are part of the museum's desire to show all sides of the nuclear debate and not just focus on weapons technology, said Walther.
    "We're not just an old, dusty warehouse full of bombs, and anyone who's been here in the last five years knows that," said Walther. "Atomic technology is something we need to learn about because it is part of the world."
    New for the museum is a store called Up 'n' Atom at Winrock Center that sells patriotic and atomic-related items.
    Not coming to Old Town are the huge missiles and rockets that figured so prominently outside the museum when it was at Kirtland, said Walther. There simply isn't room to place them all.
    But Chávez, who helped place the museum in Old Town, has asked the museum to put one signature item in the parking lot. It hasn't yet been decided which that will be, said Walther.
    The museum will also continue its after-school programs and, in a new development, be open to rentals for birthday parties and other special events, said Walther.
    Just the fact that the Atomic Museum is open at all is a major accomplishment. The museum was ordered closed immediately following the attacks on Sept. 11 and remained dark for eight months while the public was barred from the base.
    "We were considered a possible target and security risk, because we were on the base, not because of what we were about," said Walther.
    The museum's location at Kirtland had always created a "security hole" by drawing more than 100,000 visitors a year past the base's security gates.
    After realizing that the public might never again be allowed to travel freely to the museum on base, Walther began searching for an interim location. The Atomic Museum has plans to open in a permanent new spot at Balloon Fiesta Park in 2005 or 2006, but no one wanted it to stay closed that long.
    When a suitable location opened up at the old REI building right on Museum Row this spring, the Atomic Museum snapped it up.
    Attendance is expected to rise dramatically now that the museum is in tourist-rich Old Town, said Walther.
    "We are absolutely thrilled to be right here in the city's cultural corridor," he said.