Taking A Trip Down Memory Lane

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Museum > Staff and volunteers share memories of institution

By Arin McKenna

No place is better equipped to take a trip down memory lane than a museum, and the Bradbury Science Museum used its resources to full advantage for its 50th anniversary celebration on Wednesday.


Robert Krohn, who was in charge of nuclear tests at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, convinced laboratory director Norris Bradbury of the need for a museum in 1954. The first museum, founded in an old icehouse on the banks of Ashley Pond, was classified and open only to official visitors.

In 1963, Director of Community Relations Robert Porton obtained Bradbury’s approval to display unclassified World War II era documents and photos along with scientific memorabilia and working models of unclassified research projects, and the museum opened to the general public as the Los Alamos Laboratory Scientific Museum. It drew 14,000 visitors from all 50 states and 40 countries in its first year.

Laboratory staff served as docents, including a secretary named Ruth Parker. Parker was on hand to share her memories on Wednesday.

“The room was about half the size of the visitor center here in town. It was a tiny little room,” Parker said. “And it was not set up for all these electrical things. So we plugged in all this stuff and we were always blowing fuses. We couldn’t run two things at the same time. So we’d say, ‘Wait until they’re finished, then I can run this one.’”

Parker and other docents learned about the exhibits by watching scientists and administrators as they toured family and official visitors around the exhibits.

“We had no instruction. The museum opened one day, and we just walked in and took people through. We learned by the seat of our pants,” Parker said. “And then on Fridays, if there were no visitors, sometimes we would take each other through and see who could give the best tour with the most misinformation. That was how we learned.”

The staff not only made the learning fun, they also played pranks on each other. One of their favorites was to hide the three-inch silver and gold cubes that were part of a hands-on exhibit about the weight of different metals. If someone forgot to lock the cubes up at night, they would be “missing” in the morning.

“So you’d walk around and think, now who’s got a grin on their face,” Parker said.

Porton himself hid the cubes on Parker one morning.

“I went to pull it out of the safe and it was gone.” Parker said. “I looked at everybody and I thought, ‘Bob’s got it.’ I could tell from the way he was walking around, his body language. I looked and looked and finally I found it, on a kiddie chair under his desk that he used as a footstool.”

When Robert Brashear was managing the museum, the docents wrapped up the gold cube on his birthday and presented it with a card that read ,”Just a little something from all of us.”

Executive Director Linda Deck kicked off the ceremonies with an overview of the museum’s history, including its various names and locations.

“The mission of the museum, through location and name changes, and the comings and goings of many talented and dedicated staff — many who are here today — has remained the same: to excite people about science and engineering and to build their understanding and appreciation for the work of Los Alamos National Laboratory,” Deck said.

Retired LANL Weapons Engineer Glenn McDuff shared stories about some of the artifacts he “dredged up” for the museum.

“Glen’s been a great partner,” Deck said. “And he’s just a representation of many, many people who have brought exhibits and specimens and artifacts here to the museum for us to be able to tell our story.”

McDuff’s favorite contribution is the last remaining fire set from the original Fat Man, which he found in the tunnels at Sandia National Laboratory, scheduled to be thrown away.

“When we found it, it was still in a wooden crate, completely filled with rat poop. So we got our spoons and we took it over here to the carwash and about $40 in quarters later…” McDuff said. “The tire cleaner is really the setting to use. It is really the best to clean nuclear weapons with.”

The fire set is not only the last of 280 used in testing and the bomb itself, it is one of only two remaining pieces from the original Fat Man. The other piece is still classified.

“It’s just a real classic piece of technology, and it’s the most complicated part of the Fat Man. Fat Man was really a complicated bomb,” McDuff said.

McDuff’s other favorite is one of the blast gauge’s used to measure Fat Man’s impact at Hiroshima.
A chance conversation with Harold Agnew revealed that Agnew had one of the gage’s in his possession and knew the whereabouts of another one.

Agnew sent both to McDuff for the museum. Agnew was one of those who monitored the blast from the cargo bay of The Great Artiste, which flew the mission with the Enola Gay.

McDuff also revealed that the original “Little Boy” displayed at the museum, was not the replica seen today, but a weapon classified as AAA298, which came up missing during a weapons inventory.

“So one Friday about midnight we came over here to the Bradbury and extracted AAA298, which had been sitting here for a decade, and took it back over to the laboratory for safekeeping,” McDuff said.

Museum staff brought out some of the original exhibits for the celebration, including J. Robert Oppenheimer’s chair and Plastic Man, an actual artifact used to understand biological radiation effects.

Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce Director Katy Korkos summed up the draw the museum holds for visitors.

“From the beginning the lab has realized that the work that’s done here changes the world, and when we do this world-changing work, everybody wants to know more about it, and they come to the places where the superstars of the scientific world have lived and worked.”