On the last day of 2011, the Atomic Testing Museum adjusted its name to match its new status. The facility at 755 E. Flamingo Road is now the National Atomic Testing Museum, and it is one of only 37 national museums in the country.
“There are several museums that have the word ‘national’ in their title, but to become a national museum of the United States requires an act of Congress,” said Allan Palmer, executive director and CEO of the museum. “We achieved that status when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which was signed by President Obama.”
Of the 37 museums, only four, including the National Atomic Testing Museum, are nonprofits. Palmer said most of the museums are east of the Mississippi River. More than half of the country’s national museums are affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution.
“That means we do obtain materials and artifacts from the Smithsonian but not funding or direction,” Palmer said. “We’re independent in that regard.”
The museum, which opened in 2005, was created to educate visitors about the history of the United States’ nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site. The museum had been open less than a year when the test site, which had been operating since the 1950s, underwent a name change, becoming the Nevada National Security Site. When the museum achieved national status, its mandate changed.
“We are the keepers of of the story of all our nation’s nuclear weapons testing programs,” Palmer said. “Since people found out, they have been sending us cards and letters and artifacts for us to take care of. It’s expanded our workload and the scope of what we do.”
The expansion of the collection may soon prove too much for the current building. Palmer said the collection on display may someday include airplanes, a 140-foot-long atomic cannon and a lunar rover.
“They tested a lunar rover out on the test site before they brought one up to the moon,” Palmer said. “If we’re going to add those kinds of artifacts to the display, we’re either going to have to grow in place here, which is difficult, or find some other place to branch into.”
He said Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and others have expressed interest in bringing the museum downtown, but he is still exploring the museum’s options.
“We like our current location near the middle of the Strip,” Palmer said. “It brings in a lot of tourists. There’s an argument for moving closer to other museums, though.”
The museum’s permanent collection is linear, taking visitors from the dawn of the Atomic Age through the present. Near the middle of the museum, a theater allows visitors to experience a virtual atomic blast from inside a bunker. In addition to the artifacts and reproductions, there are models of parts of the Nevada Test Site crafted by its former workers. Some of the former workers, such as Mark Heiner, who began working at the test site in 1965, volunteer as docents at the museum, explaining the displays to visitors.
“When I was getting ready to retire last year, I visited the museum and saw all these projects and programs I worked on,” Heiner said. “I thought that maybe I needed to spend some time down here.”
Heiner volunteers at least once a week and works during most of the museum’s special events. He enjoys meeting visitors from all over the world, but some of his favorite people to meet those who worked at the test site before his time.
“I love to meet veterans from the atmospheric testing days,” Heiner said. “They are heroes to me.”
One of those veterans, Al Tseu, returned to Nevada to speak at the National Day of Remembrance on Oct. 25. The 82-year-old veteran paratrooper was part of a group that jumped into ground zero of an above-ground nuclear test less than an hour after detonation.
“The chutes in those days really yanked you hard when they deployed,” Tseu said. “I knew I was in trouble when I pulled my ripcord and that didn’t happen.”
Tseu told a packed house how he deployed his backup parachute and pulled his way partially up his fouled main parachute to untangle it. A photo from the jump shows Tseu hanging from his two parachutes, surrounded by fellow paratroopers floating down to the freshly blasted Nevada desert.
The museum has also started hosting off-site lectures, such as its Pub Lecture series at Atomic Liquors, 917 Fremont St.
“It’s a way to get people out of the museum and into another place where they may be a little looser, more comfortable and have a bit of fun with it.” Palmer said. “We don’t have any Pub Lectures scheduled right now, but we’ll probably have one in the first quarter of 2014.”
The museum has the Harry Reid Exhibit Hall for temporary displays, but for the last year, the show has remained the same.
“The show is called ‘Area 51 — Myth or Reality,’ and it has turned out to be amazingly popular,” Palmer said. “We only intended to have it up for a year, but it’s been held over at least another year or two by popular demand.”
The exhibit includes artifacts and photographs that were recently declassified from the testing area. It also includes the mythology surrounding it and its appearance in popular media and allows the viewer to sort out fact from fiction.
“There’s a fascination with Area 51, extraterrestrials and all the stuff that goes with it,” Palmer said. “The real story of Area 51, which we’re able to tell now, is almost as fascinating as anything you could make up.”
For more information, call 702-794-5161 or visit atomictestingmuseum.org.
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.