National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque, New Mexico
As you will probably have guessed from the name, this is the USA
's main museum about nuclear science and energy but more importantly it's mostly about the very darkest aspect of all of this: nuclear weaponry and their apocalyptic potential for world destruction expecially during the Cold War
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
The Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque was first incepted in the late 1960s, and was aligned with the Sandia National Laboratories (which it still is, through main sponsor Lockheed Martin). It was located within the perimeter of Kirtland Air Force Base and became known simply as the National Atomic Museum – even though it wasn't until the early 1990s that it actually received that official accolade "National".
A decade on, the museum was moved out of the Air Force Base to increase its accessibility to the general public. However, the new premises in Old Town Albuquerque were too small, so a dedicated new facility was built in the south-west of Albuquerque, again closer to Kirtland AFB, but still outside it.
The new museum at its generously spacious premises opened in 2009.
What there is to see:
a lot – this is the premier museum in the USA
about all things nuclear, and in particular nuclear weaponry. As such it is one of the most important items on any dark tourist's, and especially any "nuclear tourist's" itinerary of the south-west US … and unlike Trinity
it is accessible all year round!
As you arrive at the museum's site, the tall phallic shape of a Redstone rocket greets you, as does a smaller launcher of surface-to-air missiles right by the entrance … also note the little bollards between the car park and the museum that look like nuclear missile warheads! It's an apt indication of what awaits you inside!
Once past the ticket counter by the museum shop (see below), you can either watch a documentary film in the auditorium first, if the time of your visits coincides with a screening (scheduled at 11:30, 1:30 and 2:30), or delve straight into the exhibition.
This kicks off with some early history, in nuclear terms, i.e. with the research into the atom gaining momentum in the first half of the 20th century. From precursors like Marie Curie, via theoretical pioneers Albert Einstein and Otto Hahn (the latter is credited with having discovered the splitting of the atom) to those big names who then proceeded to take part in the USA
's Manhattan Project
, such as Enrico Fermi or Edward Teller.
One focus of this historical section is the "race" between Germany
and the Western Allies to develop an atomic bomb. While the German efforts of Werner Heisenberg et al. are fairly well known (and usually overestimated), I hadn't been aware that the Japanese also had a nuclear programme and managed to advance it further than the Germans had, though their research centre was destroyed (in conventional bombings of Tokyo
). So in this respect alone, the museum managed to enlighten me in an unexpected way. That's as it should be, of course – such museums should be educational, ideally even to visitors who already (think they) have a solid prior knowledge of the subject.
Predictably, the Manhattan Project
and its lab in Los Alamos
with Robert Oppenheimer
at the scientific helm is subsequently given plenty of scope. However, the exhibition simultaneously branches into different directions at this crossroad, as it were. Straight ahead lies the war effort (more on that in a minute). Heading left one can proceed to a section about civilian applications of nuclear science, e.g. in medicine. Also in this section are some further eye-openers about how much radiation is in what. I had no idea that brazil nuts were the most radioactive food stuff! Shame. I quite like them, but will now probably think twice before eating them. Crazy stories of early naivety in the use of radioactive materials are also on display, such as glass dyed a green-ish colour by mixing uranium into the molten glass, or crockery in bright orange thanks to the use of uranium oxide (you can even measure the radiation emitted by a piece of such crockery in an interactive dosimeter exhibit!).
But back to the war. A separate section picks out the element of propaganda in WWII
(and beyond). Interestingly, this is far from one-sided. Obviously, there are plenty of examples of Nazi
propaganda, but propagandistic elements on the "other side", i.e. the West (e.g. Great Britain
), are also represented. Such a balanced openness deserves respect.
Heading further down the war-path, as it were, the story of the bombings of Hiroshima
is a main focus of the exhibition. Strangely, the military execution of these missions is recounted in quite some detail first, the development and testing phase that preceded it is picked up only in a subsequent section.
Never mind, the missions of the Enola Gay
(Hiroshima) and the Bockscar
(Nagasaki) are both described in minute detail – and illustrated with scale model displays of the loading of the bombs onto the planes on the Pacific
island of Tinian
The "decision to drop" is discussed frankly, with both sides of the argument, for and against, given equal weight. Again: respect! The "pro" side ultimately won the case, as we know – and one of the principal arguments, that the atomic bombs actually saved lives by shortening the war and sparing the USA
a deadly invasion of the Japanese mainland, comes out strongest here too. But the ethical and political counter-arguments are pointed out as well (see, again, under Hiroshima
and especially Nagasaki
for more on these issues).
Next, full-scale replicas of the two bombs, Little Boy (Hiroshima) and Fat Man (Nagasaki), mark the beginning of the Los Alamos
/Trinity section. An even larger exhibit is one of the vehicles, a Plymouth Sedan, from the Los Alamos days. A model of "The Gadget" (i.e. the Trinity bomb), complete with detonator, is on display here too.
What impressed me more, though, was a comparatively small exhibit: two pieces of Trinitite of such a clean green colour that they almost looked like jewels – easily the best specimens of the stuff I have ever seen anywhere (and there have been a few!). The Trinity test itself is described and illustrated in pictures as well, of course.
Past a small intermediate section commemorating Hiroshima
in photos and adorned with the usual peace symbol origami cranes, a dark corridor sets the scene for the next main part: the Cold War
section. In terms of scale and number of impressive artefacts on display, this is the heart of the museum!
The reordering of the post-WWII world and some Soviet propaganda posters give way to a sloping walkway that opens up into a weaponry-filled hall. To the left, is a specially themed section about "civil defence" in the atomic age. Here you can see feeble instructions to the civilian populace on how to prepare for and survive nuclear Armageddon… and yes, the notorious American effort of "duck and cover" is there too! Interestingly and unusually, there's also a lot of Soviet equivalents represented. A mock-up of a home fallout shelter, complete with camping bed, tinned food supplies and "sanitation kit" exude a suitably dark and eerie atmosphere.
But then the military gear takes over. A vast array of all manner of nuclear weaponry is on display, from nuclear howitzer projectiles, via tactical short-range missiles such as the Lance system, to full-scale thermonuclear ICBM warheads.
In one corner stands a double pack of Minuteman ICBM
re-entry vehicles (RVs), one a tested specimen with burned away heat-shield cover next to a pristine one. Overhead in the middle of the hall, a scaled-down model of a multiple warhead missile looms darkly over various examples of air-drop bombs, including (Brits, listen up!) one from the arsenal of Great Britain
(the same type is also on display at Hack Green
The single most spectacular exhibits, however, have to be the two Broken Arrows exhibits. Broken Arrows was the US military code-name for accidents involving nuclear weapons. There were many, most of them thankfully rather harmless, but on two occasions accidentally "lost" thermonuclear bombs did release radioactive material into the atmosphere – one in Thule, Greenland, the other near Palomares, Spain
, requiring extensive clean-up operations. The two dented bomb casings on display here are the original ones recovered from the Palomares accident! Creepy stuff!!!
So is the Doomsday Clock, though in a more symbolic way. This is a representation of how close humankind is deemed to be to the end of the world. It has been maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947 and was at its closest to midnight = doomsday (2 minutes to 12) in 1953 at a time when both the Soviet Union
and the USA
conducted tests of H-bombs. The clock was moved back and forth several times, most recently forward again, in 2007, namely due to a perceived combination of increased threats from nuclear proliferation (North Korea
and Iran are specifically mentioned), escalating terrorism and a new factor: climate change! It now stands at five to midnight!
On a somewhat lighter note, the end of the Cold War
is celebrated e.g. through a display cabinet holding various pieces of the Berlin Wall
, which was hacked apart for souvenirs after the fall of the wall on 9 November 1989 – a date generally seen as the beginning of the end of the East-West confrontation in the Cold War.
A door then leads out to the open-air part of the museum. But let's first stay indoors for a brief summery of what else there is inside the museum building:
Most of it deals with the "civilian" use of nuclear science/power generation – and the problems of nuclear waste associated with it … as well as possible alternative sources of energy. Mock-ups of radioactive waste storage containers can be seen (none actually containing anything radioactive, of course), a model of a French nuclear power plant, and the absolute biscuit-taker: a set of Harrisburg
kitsch. This includes a ceramic mug and a lamp stand in the shape of cooling towers and a plate and lampshade with photographs of the Three Mile Island plant proudly printed on them. T-shirts made for anti-Nukes protests following the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 counter this baffling display of atomic age confidence, at least to a degree.
In a similar vein, a panel shows examples of anti-Nukes protests and satire, e.g. singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, or posters for the bitterly sarcastic tragicomical movie "Dr. Strangelove". In contrast, countless examples of how the Atomic Age was picked up by and reflected in pop culture in a naively optimistic way are also shown. Such cultural confidence in the atom can be seen in products such as "Atomic" dish detergent, "Atomic" needle-and-threads packs, quackery remedies called "Atomic Blast" ("bottled in bomb"!), but also more cynically in "comical" games such as one called "Nuclear Escalation".
Finally, there's quite a bit of educational kiddie stuff here too, including a rather pathetic looking Einstein
puppet which forms part of a "Little Albert's Lab" section where children are supposed to learn about nuclear physics through "fun" experiments. To what degree this may work is beyond me to say; but I can't quite suppress a certain suspicion that the connection between the "fun" elements and genuine understanding of nuclear physics may be a little fragile.
But now for the outside part, where the very largest exhibits are. Going through the more important members of the set in a clockwise fashion, starting to the left/eastern side, first there's a F-105 Thunderchief on a plinth (looking out to the museum's iconic Redstone missile outside the fence). Then there's a B-29 bomber, i.e. of the same type as the Enola Gay
atomic bombers of WWII
. Next to it, this is outdone size-wise by a B-52 – resplendent in its Strategic Air Command (SAC) markings. You can look into the (empty) bomb bay.
In between the two big planes stands one of the few surviving M65 atomic cannons, informally known as "Atomic Annie" and most famous for the Grable shot at the NTS
in 1953. Behind the planes and the cannon are also a few early model H-bombs – when these were still huge unwieldy drum-shaped monsters. Much sleeker are the several smaller missiles and cruise missiles, including the early intercontinental range Snark model (the only one ever deployed – if only for a rather short life – before the concept became obsolete).
The north-western section of the open-air area is devoted to the big ICBM
s. A complete Titan II (cf. Titan Missile Silo Museum
), in sections, is one of the star pieces, as is a Peacekeeper MX with its multiple warhead RV. They are joined by a Thor and Jupiter too. Unlike the Redstone by the entrance, all these rockets are not upright but in a horizontal position, some on their trailers.
Finally, back towards the door, there are two rusty sections of the "tail" (tower) part of a submarine, namely the USS James K. Polk, a nuclear sub from the 1960s. Apparently, there is an ongoing project to restore this exhibit – leaflets calling for donations were stacked by the door. So this particular exhibit is likely to change to a less ramshackle appearance in future years.
Back by the main entrance to the museum there is also a large shop. Here you can find various nuclear-themed souvenirs and books, DVDs etc. as well as a range of T-shirts, some of them decidedly tongue-in-cheek!
All in all, the National Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque scores over its thematically similar equivalents in Los Alamos (Bradbury Science Museum)
or the Atomic Testing Museum
in Las Vegas thanks to the nature and large number of big artefacts on display. The more historical parts are also superb, and the balance between texts, images and artefacts is as close to perfect as it gets.
In that sense, then, this is the most rewarding and most comprehensive of all the atomic tourism sights in the south-west of the USA
– even though what it lacks completely is authenticity of place. For that you do still have to travel to places like Los Alamos
, the Titan II silo near Tucson
, the NTS
or, in particular, Trinity
. As a museum commodfication of its subject matter, however, this Albuquerque institution is hard to beat.
on the south-eastern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
, just east of Kirtland Air Force Base, at 601 Eubank Blvd. SE. on the corner of Southern Boulevard SE, six blocks south of the intersection with Central Ave. and a few miles off Interstate 40 exit 165.
Access and costs: a bit out of town, but fairly easy to get to (at least by car), not too expensive.
Details: to get to the museum it's easiest (as usual) to drive there; from I-40 heading east of Albuquerque centre take exit 165 south and drive along Eubank SE until you pass the intersection with Southern Blvd, from where you will already see the museum with its landmark missile standing outside which also marks the entrance to the car park on your right.
If you are one of the few in the US without access to a car you can get there by public transport too: e.g. bus line 11 can take you from the downtown Alvarado Transportation Center (ATC) east to the Eubank & Lomes stop, from where you can walk a short distance to the Line 2 bus stop and take this south six or seven stops to Eubank & Southern or Eubank & La Entrada, which are close to the museum. But this will take you at least 45 minutes (possibly a lot longer).
Opening times: daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas and New Year's Day)
Admission: 8 USD for adults and 7 USD for seniors (60 +), youths (6 to 17-year-olds) and veterans, 6 USD for active members of the military.
The museum visit is normally self-guided, but you can also hire guides/docents, in particular if you have a group (from 10 persons, 5 USD per head).
Time required: I spent two hours here – but real science buffs could probably use even longer to get through every detail.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Those who have perhaps a certain phobia of, but preferably also a fascination with, rattlesnakes and other slithery and creepy-crawly creatures have to go and see the unique "American International Rattlesnake museum" in Albuquerque's Old Town (202 San Felipe Avenue). It's allegedly the world's largest collection of live rattlesnakes on public display (all safely behind glass – fear not!). There's also all manner of memorabilia, general bric-a-brac and loads of souvenirs along the museum's reptilian theme – as well as a collection of (mostly beer) bottles with labels of related motifs. Opening times: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sat 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m.; admission 5 USD (students/seniors/military 4 USD, kids 3 USD).
Albuquerque also has one of the various Holocaust Museums, in this instance called the New Mexico Holocaust & Intolerance Museum
– which is a slight indication that the coverage of this particular museum extends somewhat beyond the Holocaust
against the European Jews during the Nazi era, e.g. to the Armenian genocide
. Unusually – and quite remarkably – it even includes a section about the "Native American Genocide". The main focus, however, is of course on the Holocaust itself – and key sections include those about concentration camps
such as Buchenwald
(as a particularly remarkable exhibit they have a US flag made in secret by inmates in the camp!), slave labour, medical experiments, but also about the rescue efforts of individuals and in particular countries (such as Denmark
). Opening times: Tue-Sat 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Address: 616 Central Avenue SW.
Back on the nuclear theme, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History also organizes guided coach tours to the Trinity site
twice-annually on the respective open days in April and October (first Saturday). However, when I sent a couple of emails to the museum enquiring about these tours I never heard anything back. Maybe you should better phone up (see the group tours section on its website: www.nuclearmuseum.org) or book the tour in person if you happen to be in the area or live close by. Alternatively, you can drive it yourself. For individual visitors Albuquerque also makes a good base for going to the Trinity site, as it is only a couple of hours' drive to Stallion Gate for the north access to White Sands Missile Range, while the convoy access is over on the other side of the range at Alamogordo.
A thematically related institution is also the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos
, the place where the Manhattan Project
developed the first atomic bombs
, including the one tested at Trinity
as well as those dropped on Hiroshima
. Compared to Albuquerque's National Nuclear Museum the Los Alamos equivalent is smaller and more focused on the physics of nuclear weaponry, energy and related fields, as well as on the history of the people who made Los Alamos the historical place it is. From the museum you can also take walking tours around the old centre of town. Seeing with one's own eyes some of the historical buildings from the Manhattan Project era is a major bonus for those who appreciate the authenticity of place in Los Alamos, which is something the Albuquerque museum largely lacks. From Albuquerque, Los Alamos is a good three hours' drive (so Santa Fe may be a better base for going there).
Yet further afield, the Barringer Meteor Crater
near Flagstaff, Arizona, ca. 250 miles (400 km) to the west, and also just about within reach from Albuquerque (straight drive along I-40) can provide an impression of what nature's forces can do on their own without atomic bombs to make big holes in the Earth's crust!
For yet more see under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations: nothing much in the immediate vicinity, but to the west of the commercial downtown, Albuquerque has a very attractive Old Town, which in my view doesn't lag much behind that of the more famous Santa Fe. Nor does the commercialization around the central Plaza of Albuquerque Old Town, with just as many souvenir, jewellery and crafts shops, as well as a few nice eateries in old adobe houses. The loop of Central Avenue passing south of the Old Town centre is part of the famed Route 66 – and there are a few old-style motels celebrating this fact (e.g. the Monterey).
Further along Central Ave to the south-west lies one of the key attractions of Albuquerque's BioPark, namely the Aquarium. And stretching eastwards from here along the banks of the Rio Grande botanical and zoological gardens complement this Bio complex.
- Nuclear Museum 01 - exterior
- Nuclear Museum 02 - civilian nuclear science
- Nuclear Museum 03 - measuring radiation
- Nuclear Museum 04 - who would have thought Brazil nuts are the most radioactive food
- Nuclear Museum 05 - propaganda section
- Nuclear Museum 06 - example from WWII era Britain
- Nuclear Museum 07 - Enola Gay model
- Nuclear Museum 08 - model of Little Boy loading bay on Tinian
- Nuclear Museum 09 - Bockscar model
- Nuclear Museum 10 - life-size replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man
- Nuclear Museum 11 - the Trinity Gadget
- Nuclear Museum 12 - Trinitite
- Nuclear Museum 13 - remembering Hiroshima
- Nuclear Museum 14 - into the Cold War era
- Nuclear Museum 15 - feeble civil defence
- Nuclear Museum 16 - duck and cover
- Nuclear Museum 17 - amassed nuclear weaponry
- Nuclear Museum 18 - Minuteman re-entry vehicles - new and tested
- Nuclear Museum 19 - British bomb
- Nuclear Museum 20 - small nuclear howitzer projectile
- Nuclear Museum 21 - damaged Broken Arrows A-bomb casings from the Palomares accident
- Nuclear Museum 22 - nuclear energy section
- Nuclear Museum 23 - Harrisburg kitsch
- Nuclear Museum 24 - nuclear waste section
- Nuclear Museum 25 - atomic age pop culture
- Nuclear Museum 26 - outdoor section with landmark missile
- Nuclear Museum 27 - a B-29
- Nuclear Museum 28 - submarine parts
- Nuclear Museum 29 - nuclear cannon
- Nuclear Museum 30 - a B-52
- Nuclear Museum 31 - early thermonuclear bombs
- Nuclear Museum 32 - early cruise missiles
- Nuclear Museum 33 - SAC logo
- Nuclear Museum 34 - B-52 bomb bay
- Nuclear Museum 35 - Titan II missile in the sun
- Nuclear Museum 36 - Titan II engine shadows
- Nuclear Museum 37 - Peacekeeper multi-warhead RV
- Nuclear Museum 38 - yet another old missile and a current C-130 in the air
- Nuclear Museum 39 - shop