Las Vegas, Nevada: National Atomic Testing Museum


You may all be glad to know that having milked posts out of my brief Slovenia trip for the past month or so, I’m finally moving onto some other places.  I visited the Atomic Testing Museum in late 2011, but I think it’s quite a unique place that others might be keen to visit, and I: A.) liked it and B.) have decent pictures, which is a rarity in itself, so you’re all going to have to hear about it now.


I am not at all a fan of gambling, or clubbing, or watching Criss Angel, or whatever the hell it is most people do when they visit Vegas.  Thus, I made a point of seeking out other activities that did interest me, which as any regular reader of this blog knows, primarily means visiting museums and eating ice cream.  Oh, and complaining, but I could get enough of that in whilst being dragged around the casinos. (In case you’re wondering why I was even there, my parents went for a conference, and thought my boyfriend would enjoy Vegas, so naturally, I came along as well). So the Atomic Testing Museum, which was only a few miles away from the Strip, on E. Flamingo Road, seemed like a good alternative to gawping with dead eyes at a slot machine.


$14 for admission seemed kind of steep to me, but I think I’m kind of spoiled by all the free/inexpensive museums in the UK, as those seem to be standard museum prices these days in America.  And frankly, it seemed like a bargain compared to the Hoover Dam.  The building is fairly utilitarian, like a typical government institution, but they’ve done their best to give the interior a groovy “atomic” feel (or in some sections, a nuclear bunker theme).


The museum opened with the years leading up to WWII, and the scientific breakthroughs that would make the development of an atomic bomb possible.  This section was enhanced with the use of newsreel footage, and those retro videos about “Our Friend, the Atom.”  They also had some helpful tips on how to survive an atomic blast, complete with 1950’s mannequins.  Other than the temporary exhibit, this was my favourite section of the museum, as it was more about history than science. 


I reckon most people would quite enjoy the theatre, where you can experience a simulated atomic blast, but I think I’ve established that I am a total weiner where loud noises are concerned, so I didn’t go in.  There was a countdown clock to the blast and everything, so I’m sure it was intense.  The next part of the museum went into the reasons why Nevada was chosen as an ideal test site, as well as the tests themselves, which went on from 1951-1992. Because the area wasn’t a test site until well after WWII, the museum didn’t dwell much on the obviously horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but was more focused on the Soviets and the Cold War, which was, after all, the main reason for the development of so many nuclear weapons.


The final area of the permanent exhibits was devoted mainly to the science behind the bombs, and included an impressive array of Geiger counters and various geological maps, but I passed through this section rather quickly, as it seemed a bit much to try to teach myself physics on a museum visit.  (Actually, my great-uncle was a physicist who I’m told worked on the H-bomb, but the science genes clearly skipped me, since I declined to take physics in high school in favour of biology and chemistry, as physics just seemed like too much math). 


The best part of the museum, in my opinion, was the temporary “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit, which was about the golden age of Vegas in the ’50s-’70s. This had all the hokeyness one could hope for, with displays on Liberace and Evel Knievel, and cardboard cutouts of Sinatra, Elvis, and JFK.  You better believe I got my picture with all of them.

P1050517       P1050534

They even had some preserves dating back to the 1960s, and glittery costumes belonging to the former contestants for Miss Atomic Energy.  After some of the grim subject matter of the rest of the museum (since WMDs are never going to exactly be cheery), it was nice to luxuriate in some over-the-top cheesiness, which Vegas does so well.  This exhibit is no longer there, but according to the website, they do have one about Roswell in its place, which also looks promising (though sadly, far less camp). 

P1050533      P1050530

The museum shop was pretty exemplary; lots of good postcards and various presidential themed stuff, including a FDR paper doll which I keep in a prominent place on my mantelpiece to this day.  (Now I just need the presidential Pez collection.  A candy dispensing Franklin Pierce?  Yes, please!)  I’m going to give the museum 4/5, even though all of the exhibits didn’t appeal to me, because I think it was well put together, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about atomic testing (which, whilst not exactly classified, is not something you often hear that much about).  I definitely recommend it if you’re looking an excuse to pull yourself away from the contrived atmosphere of the Strip, and experience something more authentic to Las Vegas’s past.