It only took me 13 trips to Las Vegas to make it to the Atomic Testing Museum. That’s not too bad, considering the cabbie who drove me there, a Vermont transplant from Bennington, told me he had lived there nearly 20 years and had never visited himself. Besides, a museum dedicated to a weapon of mass destruction wasn’t exactly at the top of my priority list, if you know what I mean.
But it was finally time to check it out this year. My motivation was that I wanted to see their Area 51 exhibit. The theme of my trip was to get my “geek fix,” and I’ve seen every episode of the X-Files. So I had to see this exhibit.
At $22, the museum is a little on the pricey side (but so much more worth it than something like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum). As a bonus, they were giving away little stuffed turtles that day with admission. They were probably for families with children to keep the kids happy (because God knows they’d be bored out of their little minds otherwise).
The young man at the ticket counter seemed embarrassed when he mumbled “Um, so we’re giving away these turtles today with admission. Do you want one?” He seemed so sure it was a ridiculous idea to offer a grown woman without kids a stuffed animal that he was surprised when I said “YES!” and practically leapt over the counter for it.
Clearly, he did not know about my turtle obsession.
The Area 51 Exhibit was fascinating. They have some artifacts, like scraps of metal and other materials that were found in Area 51, as well as a tableau with a fake alien, doctor and G-Man. (You can imagine what they’re doing.) But the exhibit is heavy on information–written text as well as multimedia interviews and videos featuring a well-respected Vegas journalist who covered Area 51 news and a scientist who was an expert.
In the exhibit is a quote from an astronaut (I didn’t write down the name at the time, but a little online research has convinced me this was Edgar Mitchell, who was the 6th astronaut to walk on the moon). In the quote, he indicated that in his role (as a scientist and astronaut), lots of people at high levels of government confided in him and so he knows without a doubt that life from another planet has been here.
I have to admit, this exhibit made me feel a lot less skeptical about UFOs and it also made me want to go back and rewatch the X-Files in the worst way. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos or videos in this section of the museum the way you can the main exhibits. Because of all the reading involved here, be sure to give yourself plenty of time for this exhibit.
Because I spent so much time in the Area 51 exhibit, I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to the regular exhibit. I had to rush through the last third of it to get back to the hotel. Still, what I saw definitely kept me engaged.
Their collection houses over 12,000 unique artifacts related to the history of the nuclear bomb, and covers development of the technology, atmospheric and underground testing, and the “atomic culture”. There is even a theater where you can “experience a simulated atmospheric bomb blast.” (I did not do that.)
Since reading John Hersey’s HIroshima in high school, I’ve not been a big fan of nuclear weapons, though I suppose if another superpower like Russia has them, you want to be able to defend yourself. Still, the overwhelming thought I had while touring the exhibit was “What if we really don’t know the long-term consequences of unleashing these bombs on planet Earth? What if some of the global warming we see today was caused by all the testing that was done back in the ’40s and ’50s?” I’m not a scientist, so I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it made me think.
Nuclear testing was supposedly conducted far from human populations, yet as the museum points out, some islanders in the Pacific and a boat full of Japanese fishermen got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the results were predictably horrific. There was information displayed about what people were told to do during the Cold War in case of nuclear attack, including all of the supplies they were supposed to have in their bomb shelters. (Which was a ridiculously small amount of supplies, by the way. People would have ended up dying of starvation and thirst by the time the radiation was gone from the atmosphere.)
Naturally, the museum has a section on how Las Vegas incorporated atomic testing into its tourism branding and marketing (with “atomic parties,” etc.). There were old pulp magazines as well as more mainstream magazines like Popular Mechanics with headlines about Area 51; obviously, everyone got caught up in the hype about it back in the day. There were even atomic souvenirs.
Overall, visiting this museum is not a bad way to spend a few hours in Las Vegas. I was certainly not bored, though I do like to visit educational attractions wherever I travel. Your mileage may vary. If you’re interested in that period of history and/or the Area 51 mystique, I definitely recommend a visit.
What You Need to Know:
Location: 755 E. Flamingo Rd.
Hours: Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 12pm-5pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
Admission price: $22 ($2 off for seniors, military, locals, etc.)
Photography: Yes in the general exhibit area, lobby and outside, but not in the Area 51 exhibit. You cannot shoot video here.
Food and drink: No outside food and drink allowed inside the exhibit areas.
Cell phones: No cell phone usage in the museum.
Getting to and from the museum: If you don’t have a car, cab fare isn’t too bad from the Strip (it was $30 round trip between museum and Monte Carlo). The museum’s ticket desk has business cards for a local cab company if you need the number. I used it, and my return driver arrived within 5 minutes.