Cold War

Las Vegas, Nevada: National Atomic Testing Museum

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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.

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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.

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$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).

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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. 

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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.

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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). 

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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.

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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). 

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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. 

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Essex: Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

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Although I was disappointed in the Postal Museum Store, the drive to Essex wasn’t a total waste, as we also had plans to visit the Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker.  I’ve had it on my list of places to visit for a while, though I was slightly more enticed by the thought of Merlincock Wood (made even funnier if you’ve actually seen that terrible Merlin show on the BBC.  We used to have an old TV that could only pick up BBC1 and Channel 4, so I’ve been forced to watch an entire series, a depressing number of hours I can never get back.), a nearby forest, than perhaps the bunker itself.  In any event, while we never found Merlincock Wood (though I shudder to think what kind of visitors I’m going to bring to my blog by even typing that name), we did find the bunker, albeit with some difficulty. Since it was a secret bunker, it stands to reason that it would of course be hidden away, which it was.  We had to loop around a narrow country road a few times to even locate the parking lot, which was at the end of a long dirt road past a field that looked as though it might have been full of land mines (probably just normal seeds though).  Upon parking, we realised that the bunker was a cash-only affair, so we then had to drive for half an hour to locate a cash machine (Kelvedon Hatch is sort of in the middle of nowhere), so don’t get caught out if you decide to visit.

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Cash located, we made the lengthy trek back to the bunker, and I was frankly thinking at this point that the bunker had better be pretty damn amazing to make up for all the inconvenience.  My first impressions were not great.  It shares a parking lot (and cafe) with some sort of military themed playground, where swarms of bratty children hung from ropes whilst screeching like banshees.  The bunker itself was not especially encouraging either.  The front of it was plastered with stern signage, outlining the many rules of the bunker (no pictures of the interior for one, unless you wanted to purchase a £5 “licence,” hence, although there were many cool things to take pictures of, all the ones in this post will be of the rather boring exterior).  The whole thing operated on an honour system, so there was no admissions desk, rather, you helped yourself to an audio headset and were told to pay at the end of the tour. I have to admit, I tend to steer clear of places that I imagine will be rife with hardcore conspiracy theorist types, and the bunker hadn’t done anything so far to dispel my preconceptions.  We were the only people there, and I was a little apprehensive about entering the dodgy looking tunnel, but as the sign at the threshold informed us there was no turning back at that point (without having to pay, anyway), we were already in too deep.

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Like the vast majority of audio tours, this one was also long-winded, but there were signs up with the same information that was given in the audio tour (in some cases, word-for-word), so you didn’t necessarily have to listen to it.  It actually got pretty annoying, as the narrator kept repeating the same phrases.  For example, he told us how “the likes of you and I” would be kept out of the tunnel at gunpoint about five times.  The vast majority of information was about the operation of the bunker, rather than why or how it was built.  I mean, obviously it was a Cold War construction, but there wasn’t much background provided.  Nonetheless, once we left the opening tunnel (there to protect the bunker against the blast), and entered the bunker proper, things picked up quite a bit.

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The bunker promised “extremely realistic” wax models, and whilst I’d perhaps quibble on the realism, they certainly delivered an impressive array of wax figures, including ones of Margaret Thatcher and John Major (we actually visited the week before Thatcher died, so it would be interesting to see if they had changed anything as a result, though I don’t see why they would have, as the figures were there to represent the Prime Ministers who would have used the bunker).  The bunker was vast, far bigger than I would have thought, and all the communications rooms had clacking machines running, so it was surprisingly lively in there – a nice change from the funereal mood of the entrance.  They had ’50s and ’60s era nuclear preparation films playing in a few of the rooms, and I love that kind of atomic kitsch, so we of course stopped to watch. You’ll be glad to know that I now know how to create a shelter within my home, assuming I can lay my hands on a couple of old doors and a hell of a lot of sand, and have time to do some frenzied construction.

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I’m kind of a Where’s Waldo (or, sigh, Wally, though that just sounds wrong to me) in this one.

You’re allowed to tramp through most of the former bunker, and the tour takes you through various communications rooms, bedrooms and dormitories, and the actual workings of the bunker, including the air filtration system, with wax figures to demonstrate the use of the rooms throughout.  The emphasis seemed to be strongly on how the majority of the population would suffer under a nuclear attack, with less on how life in the bunker would actually unfold, though there was some of that; it was just repetitive, and only dwelt on certain aspects of the bunker.  I think I wanted to know more about the realities of day-to-day living in the bunker, rather than the mechanics of its operation; the audio guide was most keen on me learning things like how the radios would have worked, and that I probably would have died, or at the very least, turned into some sort of disfigured mutant.

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Near the end, there was an area where you could dress up and pose for pictures, however, the £5 picture surcharge still applied, unless you wanted to spend £2 to use their ancient camera, which scarcely looked functional.  As they didn’t even have the promised gas masks, I skipped it.  Now, this is really what annoyed me about the place: throughout the bunker, we were constantly reminded by various signs that we were on CCTV, and someone was watching us, which for a sort of anti-establishment styled attraction, felt like a creepy amount of surveillance.  But, when we actually reached the exit, the only people working there were a couple of men washing dishes in the cafe.  The entire payment system was through an honesty box, and whilst we were of course honest, and paid the full admission charge, I’m sure there are plenty who don’t.  It seems like they try to scare people from taking pictures with warnings of their weird surcharge, but in the end, no one actually cared about enforcing anything, which was irritating.  Even the items for sale in the gift shop were to be paid for through the honesty box (which I guess is why they require you to have cash), but the whole setup was just bizarre.  I think it would be much better if they had a normal admissions desk up front, or else just had visitors enter through the canteen, instead of trying to freak people out with off-putting signs.

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Payment system aside, I did enjoy the bunker more than I expected, so I’ll give it a 3/5.  I think there are some definite issues they need to work on, in regard to the audio tour and admissions, but I wasn’t unhappy with the overall experience, and we easily killed a couple of hours there.  Besides, emerging unscathed from what looked at the outset to be some kind of freaky torture bunker made me unusually grateful for the weak British sunlight outside.