The most harrowing museum I have ever seen is in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is the Bradbury National Science Museum, which preserves artifacts from the Manhattan Project, the research laboratory producing the first nuclear weapons. Los Alamos was once a remote secret town in the middle of the desert. In the midst of World War II, 130,000 people across the US diligently collaborated on building the nuclear bombs eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As one enters the museum, there are two life-sized statues painted a ghostly shade of white, portraying Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the two nuclear physicists responsible for creating the most deadly and destructive nuclear bombs ever used on human beings. There is an X marked on the floor where museumgoers can stand to get “the perfect selfie” with these two brilliant men, who changed the world. If you read the small print on the plaque beside Oppenheimer, it states that he later expressed regret at developing the atomic bomb.
As you walk through this museum, there are remnants of actual bombs you can get right up to, even touch. These real bombs were not dropped and are no longer full of nuclear bomb stuff, but are described as similar to the ones that killed over 220,000 people in one big bang. And there are replicas of celebrity bombs that were detonated, like Little Boy and Fat Man. Yes, bombs were given cute names. There is also, and I am not kidding when I say this, a replica of the red button supposedly used by President Truman in 1945. Museum-goers can push it, and take selfies of themselves pushing it.
There is a Canadian section too. Evidently, a Canadian company supplied many of the atomic bomb ingredients. There is a display of the full hazmat suit which they claimed would protect people from a nuclear bomb attack. It has never been tested, as it was not given to any of the 220,000 bomb victims before the bomb was dropped. It made it into the museum as a demonstration by a good and loyal ally, with great innovative skill.
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were celebrations in Washington, DC. The museum has a display case of keepsakes from those parties. Women evidently wore nuclear bomb earrings, and at a fancy black-tie gala celebrating this successful ending of the war by the American heroes, partygoers were served a giant angel food cake frosted like a nuclear bomb explosion. As part of this display is a photo of a high-ranking military man cutting into the atomic cake, his chic wife at his side, wearing a hat much like the one Jake Angeli would wear approximately 76 years and 6 months later for Insurrection Day 2021.
But of all the things I saw and experienced at this harrowing Manhattan Project museum in Los Alamos, the one that haunts me was not in any of the display cases; rather, it was the total stranger standing beside me at the final exit area.
In an attempt at a counterpoint to the glories of the bomb that “ended the war,” the exit area is devoted to anti-war posters, most of them psychedelic-looking ‘70s love-in stuff. And finally, a wall of comments on “war” written all over a wall in crayon—the thoughts of the schoolchildren who come through this grisly frightening museum every year.
The woman beside me was just a touch older than I am, likely born in the early 1950s. She shook her head in disgust at the wall of crayoned anti-war statements from the children and audibly sighed in disgust. I turned my head to meet her eyes and said: “at least there is some hope that today’s children …”
Before I could finish my sentence, she interrupted me. “Today’s children? What? What? Today’s children have no idea what this was and why it was. I’m grateful for every bomb we dropped. My father was over there and these scientists made it possible for him to come home.” Then she motioned for her husband to come to her side and she angrily walked around me to get to the exit faster.
I imagine a time, not too long from now, that there will be a museum display of the American Insurrection of 2021. I imagine a historian, a curator, and an educator coming up with the best way to explain to future generations of school kids what happened on January 6, 2021.
At the Museum of the American Insurrection of 2021, there will be another display case of wax figurines. At the centre will be President Donald J. Trump, and beside him his impeccably beautiful daughter Ivanka, flanked on the sides by his two sons, waxed in his own image. Held loosely in Trump’s hands will be the “football” that follows the President of the United States around for the entire time of his presidency. In this oft-told legend about the nation that sees itself as the leader of the free world, the precious football contains secret codes that can be used at any moment to obliterate someone, or some nation (or, if necessary for freedom, the whole world).
We are reassured, again, that these codes can only be used by a person who is legally elected President, by the people, and for the people.
And of course, there will be a spot with an X where museumgoers can stand to get the perfect selfie with the Trump family.
People will be encouraged to put their hands on the replica football, and to take another selfie, for the best way to learn history is to make it a muscle memory.
Jody Smiling is a National Magazine Award-winning author in Toronto.