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Historic Society looks for guidance

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By Kirsten Laskey

For 42 years, the Los Alamos Historical Society has operated the Los Alamos History Museum but as the society turns its attention to the house formerly owned by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, it finds itself in unfamiliar territory.

Fortunately, the historic society earned a $3,750 grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council as well as a $2,400 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These grants will offer guidance to the society as it begins initial steps to operate a historic home museum.

The guidance will come in the form of a planning symposium, which will be held Sept. 23-24 at Fuller Lodge and the Best Western Hilltop House. In addition to historic home experts, representatives from the National Park Service, the National Trust and the New Mexico Office of Historic Preservation, Martin Sherwin, who won the Pulitzer for his book “American Prometheus,” and Jon Hunner, the director of the public history program at New Mexico State University and author of “J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West” and  “Inventing Los Alamos,” will attend the symposium.

Heather McClenahan, museum assistant and web designer for the historic society, told the Monitor, “One of the things we said in the grant application is we have run a historic museum for 42 years but running a historic house museum is very different so we don’t know a lot about it. We wanted to talk to some experts about how to go about that – what some of the other options we can afford. This symposium will give us an opportunity to do that and the thing that is gratify is the New Mexico Humanities Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are big names so it was nice to have them on board with this.”

She added the society is also looking forward to getting the public’s input on how to operate the Oppenheimer house.

“We really want this to be something for the whole community,” McClenahan said. “We’re really hoping to get some good feedback … so we are really hoping for lots of good participation.”

Often called the crown jewel of the remaining Manhattan Project properties, the house on historic Bathtub Row is owned by the Historical Society in a life trust, according to a press release. “These grants will make it possible for us to get professional advice for programming this important property,” said Hedy Dunn, director of the Los Alamos Historical Museum, in a press release. “We want to be good stewards of this property and the history it represents. The symposium will allow us to plan for a time when the house will be open to the public and how to best tell the story of Dr. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.”

In announcing the grant, National Trust President Richard Moe said in the release, “With these funds, the Los Alamos Historical Society joins the National Trust and hundreds of other communities and organizations across the country actively working to protect and preserve the important places that tell the story of America.”

Tom Drake of public relations for the New Mexico office of historic preservation told the Monitor,  “We were really thrilled that they got this grant because there has been a lot of preservation work between Bathtub Row and V site … so this is great. Every little bit of extra money helps with the preservation projects like this one.”