May 15, 2013

The Manhattan Project: Interpreting Controversial History

History isn’t black and white but many shades of grey. The murky morality of certain historical events is something historians love to debate, but it makes the life of museum interpreters much more difficult. Museums and interpretative centers must present controversial history in a balanced manner with multiple perspectives, or risk getting slammed by the public as biased.

Interpreting the Manhattan Project for the Public

The Manhattan Project, the successful American effort to develop atomic bombs during World War II, was one of the most transformative but controversial events of the 20th century. Interpreting the Manhattan Project in a museum setting has proven to be tough. In 1995, for the 50th anniversary marking the end of World War II, the Smithsonian planned an exhibition on the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But veterans immediately expressed opposition to the proposed narrative, concerned that it didn’t give enough credit to the bomb for ending the war and was too sympathetic to the Japanese. Veterans groups brought members of congress in to rail against the narrative, and in the face of such blistering opposition, the Smithsonian was forced to abandon the exhibition.

The Oppenheimer House at Los Alamos could be “the jewel in the crown” of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. | Credit: Photo courtesy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation

The Enola Gay is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The accompanying description simply states that the plane dropped the first atomic bomb, without any interpretation of the impact of the bomb or its legacy. The uproar over the Enola Gay exhibit has caused national museums to shy away from tackling the topic in a meaningful and comprehensive manner.

Developing a Manhattan Project Traveling Exhibit

The Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) is a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age and its legacy. One of AHF’s goals over the next few years is to develop a national traveling exhibit on the Manhattan Project.

This past February, AHF hosted a workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation, to bring together historians, humanities scholars, and museum and science education experts to discuss how to put together a national traveling exhibit on the Manhattan Project. The participants included Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb; Smithsonian Lemelson Center director Arthur Mollela; American Institute of Physics associate historian Alex Wellerstein, author of “Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog”; sociologist Kelly Moore of Loyola University Chicago; and Manhattan Project museum directors.

During the two-day workshop, the participants discussed successful, interactive museum exhibits that integrate science and history; potential major themes for the traveling exhibit; ways to present a balanced narrative of this controversial history; and more. To view a video of the presentations and ensuing discussions, visit AHF’s YouTube page. You can also download the full transcript of the workshop on the AHF website.

Workshop participants agreed that engaging visitors with the difficult decisions and challenges the scientists and military personnel of the Manhattan Project faced is a necessary part of the exhibit. The exhibit should tackle the controversies around the bomb head-on, such as the morality of the bomb and the secrecy surrounding the project. The exhibit should put visitors in the shoes of the project’s leaders, and invite audience members to think about what decisions they would have made. The new George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has been praised for inviting the public to revisit some of the administration’s “Decision Points,” such as the war on Iraq and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Enola Gay today at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center. | Credit: Photo courtesy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation

The exhibit will emphasize the diversity of the people involved in the project. More than 130,000 people around the country worked on the project, which represented an astonishing one percent of the entire U.S. population at the time. Many different communities, from European Jewish refugees to African-Americans to Pueblo Indians to Hispanics, were involved in the project. The exhibit will address the Japanese victims of the bombs as well as the complicated legacy of the Manhattan Project for science and society today.

This balanced, comprehensive approach, focusing on the decisions and giving voice to the many people who worked on and were affected by the bomb, should help diffuse concerns by veterans and anti-nuclear activists over the exhibit’s content.

A Timely Exhibit

The participants at AHF’s workshop all agreed that developing a national traveling exhibit on the Manhattan Project is an important undertaking. One of the target audiences will be middle and high school students. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) education receives increasing support from the U.S. government, and schools encourage their students’ scientific and engineering curiosity. A national traveling exhibit, especially an interactive one, could inspire students with stories of innovations in science and engineering that changed history.

Fifty years after the war’s end may have been too soon to plan a comprehensive exhibition on the Manhattan Project; too many veterans and their families still grappled with strong feelings and vivid memories of wartime. Today, the dwindling numbers of World War II veterans give this exhibit increased urgency.

This project comes at an auspicious time. The general public’s interest in the history of the Manhattan Project and its legacy is at a peak. Over the past decade, AHF, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the communities of the Manhattan Project sites, and others have partnered to urge Congress to establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Congress is currently considering such legislation, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. The legislation has bipartisan support in both houses, and several members of congress have vowed to see the park created.

The B Reactor at Hanford, where the plutonium for the atomic bombs was produced. The reactor would be included in a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. | Credit: Photo courtesy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation

The proposed park has been featured in national news stories over the past year, as has a new website, “Voices of the Manhattan Project,” created by AHF and the Los Alamos Historical Society (LAHS). “Voices of the Manhattan Project” features the oral history collections of both organizations, and has received widespread praise for capturing the memories of Manhattan Project veterans for the education of future generations.

Today, you can’t pick up a newspaper without coming across a story that involves the legacy of the Manhattan Project. From North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs, to radiation treatment of various illnesses, to the Mars Rover’s plutonium power, the legacy of the Manhattan Project continues to reverberate in today’s world.

Preserving Controversial History

From Japanese internment camps, to sites of massacres of Native Americans, to Civil War battlefields, America has a contested history. But that does not mean such episodes should be screened from public view and that the sites where they occurred should be demolished or forgotten. AHF, in partnership with NTHP, NPCA, and other organizations, is working to make sure that the Manhattan Project is remembered, in all its complexity.

Alexandra Levy is program manager at the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. A historian by training, she enjoys learning about history and visiting historic sites from all periods, and has a special interest in World War II.

By: Alexandra Levy

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