Located in Las Vegas, Nevada, the National Atomic Testing Museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated national museum preserving the history of the development, testing, and implementation of nuclear weapons technology. The history of atomic bomb testing in the Nevada area dates back to the early 1950s, with the establishment of the Nevada National Security Site, formerly referred to as the Nevada Proving Grounds, a reservation operated by the United States Department of Energy.
Located approximately 65 northwest of Las Vegas, the site was established in 1951 along a stretch of 1,360 square miles of uninhabited desert terrain. Throughout the 1950s, more than 100 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests were carried out by the United States government at the site, beginning with the detonation of a one kiloton TNT bomb in January of 1951. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Las Vegas region was the site of notable seismic activity and anti-weapons protests connected to the atomic testing, which also showed an increased link between the development of various types of cancer among area residents. As the mushroom clouds produced by detonations could be viewed for nearly 100 miles from the test site, including hotels within the Las Vegas area, nuclear detonations became major tourist attractions throughout the later part of the 20th century.
Following the United States’ end to nuclear testing at the Nevada site in 1992, the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation was created to preserve the scientific and cultural history of atomic testing in the United States. In 2005, the Foundation opened the Atomic Testing Museum in downtown Las Vegas as a means of preserving and displaying artifact collections and educating the public about nuclear weapons testing. In 2011, the museum was designated as a Smithsonian-affiliated national museum by United States President Barack Obama, one of 37 cultural institutions in the country to receive such a designation. Since 2012, the museum has expanded its exhibits to include information about United States Air Force facility Area 51, which has been linked to a number of conspiracy theories about alien communication and unidentified flying objects.
Today, the museum is owned and operated by the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, housing a collection of more than 12,000 artifacts related to the history of atomic weapons testing in the United States. As one of the most comprehensive collections of items connected to nuclear history, the Museum showcases a variety of artifacts connected to the Nevada testing site, the Cold War, and other aspects of the history of nuclear weapons technology, including collections of more than 16,000 photographs, videos, and other multimedia pieces connected to test detonations. More than 6,000 scientific and government documents and reports also chronicle the history of United States nuclear testing.
Permanent museum exhibits include a Ground Zero Theater, which allows visitors to experience simulated effects of a nuclear bomb detonation in a controlled environment, with a control point tower replica displaying a countdown to detonation simulation. A preserved portion of the Berlin Wall is displayed for its significance to the end of the Cold War, and two pieces recovered from the World Trade Center wreckage is used to elaborate on ideas of nuclear terrorism. Other exhibits chronicle the technological advances leading to the development of atomic weapons, the history of underground nuclear testing, and the effects of manmade radiation. Geiger seismic counters are displayed, along with radio badges, radiation testing devices, and artifacts of indigenous people uncovered from sites near testing areas. Pop culture memorabilia connected to the Cold War is also showcased, including exhibits on “duck and cover” public service announcements.
In addition to permanent exhibits, a number of rotating temporary exhibits are displayed at the museum, focusing on topics connected to various cultural aspects of nuclear weaponry and military conflict, from details on the construction of the Nevada test site to exhibits of art connected to 20th century American conflicts. The museum also operates a weather monitoring station as part of the Community Environmental Monitoring Network, which records temperature, wind, and radiation data.
Ongoing Programming and Education
Group tours of the museum are offered for organizations, including curriculum-incorporated tours for elementary and secondary school groups for discounted admission rates. Radiological education seminars are offered for older students and adults on a variety of radiation science topics and are offered for in-classroom visits or museum presentations. Research assistance is also offered by request for students and historians working on projects related to nuclear history and technology, including use of the museum’s library collections. A variety of public special event programming is offered throughout the year, including a monthly Distinguished Lecture Series, a Star Wars-themed May Science Be With You event, and periodic movie nights related to atomic and science fiction topics.
755 E Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas, NV 89119, Phone: 702-794-5151
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