Museum 7/12: The Atomic Testing Museum

One of my goals in 2015 was to visit 12 museums, and to share details about those visits with you. Museums are great places to hide, to socialize, to think, to listen to audiobooks or music and to wander. They are also places to collect inspiration, to ponder, to absorb, to grow and to learn. Hopefully one of my visits will inspire one of yours. 


This was the first museum I visited with a larger group. There were 8 of us in total! This was also my second visit to Las Vegas in 2015.  (I visited the Neon Museum—also in Las Vegas—in February of 2015 which you can read about here.)


The National Atomic Testing Museum is very easy to get to if you are staying on or near the strip. The thing about this museum is that is it packed with information. In fact, it was almost TOO packed. After seeing so many museums (both this year, and years before) I really appreciate well-edited collections. Part of a  good museum experience for me involves being able to move through the exhibits at some kind of be moving along a story arc physically with my body. I think being able to physically move through a space (versus standing still for long periods of time) helps your brain to process what you are learning.  I've noticed there are different paces unique to each museum. For example, the Newseum in Washington D.C. has a quicker walk quickly between exhibits of interest, and then you slow down within the specific exhibit space. In this museum, it is a slow pace, period. You stand, take in a lot of information, take a step or two to the right, take in a lot of information, and repeat. That said, I learned a lot....a lot, and the museum did a great job of really framing the atomic age from a ton of different angles. I do think, however, they could eliminate entire panels and areas and create a more cohesive museum experience overall. I also would not recommend this museum for kids. There is a lot of text and a lot of reading and not enough visual-only or interactive elements to keep kids entertained while adults absorb information. This was confirmed by every single child being completely obnoxious. One person in our group got run into by a little girl who was bored out of her mind, and two other kids were climbing on exhibits....there were no museum staff around monitoring the exhibit space. It was a little nuts in there. 


1. The Theater.  I think my entire group was probably most impacted by this. Back in the atomic testing era here in the United States, folks (mostly journalists) would go out into the desert in Nevada to watch nuclear tests and then report on them. The museum has a theater space which shows a short, about 10 minute film. You watch a nuclear test. We were all surprised to feel a hot blast of air and 'aftershocks' as we literally rumbled in our seats. This was really impactful to FEEL. It really helped place this era in history in our minds and our bodies. 

2. Interactive Elements. This museum has some really impactful interactive elements. One in particular is a wheel you spin (thus controlling speed) which runs through video of different objects being impacted (i.e. destroyed) by nuclear impacts. Trees, buildings, There was also a Geiger counter which let you test radioactivity in a variety of objects yourself. I had never seen one of those before, let alone used it.  

3. Cultural Context. I will never forget this one dog tag that was on display. During the atomic era, all Las Vegas children got dog tags. Why? In case of a nuclear they could identify the bodies. This was the norm for them. This put my idea of 1960s childhood in a different frame of mind. 



1. Make sure you set aside several hours (I'd say 3-4) to really get time to absorb the exhibits and information. It's dense with data and details.

2. The gift shop was alright. I picked up some neat lapel pins. 

3. The Area 51 exhibit was disappointing in exhibit material quality (black painted walls, black light paint, poorly stenciled lettering in black light paint directly onto the walls, exhibit components that did not work or create meaning) and the subject matter was handled in a way that did not lend any credibility to it. As the rest of my group decided in the parking lot, the Area 51 exhibit was no better than a senior science fair exhibit found at any high school in the US. I think if the museum had presented the information in a context that was more credible (i.e. no black light paint wall stenciled lettering) I think their message would have come across as sincere, at the least. We came in with an understanding generally of what Area 51 was, and I can say we all hoped to get more information on it. None of us really knew what we saw, and none of us felt we learned anything. It was also really difficult to be in that space and hard on the eyes. For reference, we were all 20s–30s in terms of age.

4. When I paid for my ticket, I saw a sheet of paper available for guests which listed a series of questions to answer and things to find in the exhibit space. I took one and filled it out, looking for answers as I went. I managed to answer all the questions and find all the 'hidden' items. I turned it in to the front desk at the end of the tour and a gal at the desk looked at me like I was crazy. Museum staff: if you give your guests an activity, and they participate, don't be assholes. If you create an activity for your guests and have no plan for when your guests complete the activity....stop giving the activity out. This really chapped my hide because so many other museums include elements like this that really boost the positive feeling museum goers have. They can see, on paper, what what they have learned. And, as a museum, you can more clearly define that story arc your museum is telling. If someone takes the time to fill it out....I don't least say thank you? Give them a sticker? Don't be an asshole? 

National Atomic Testing Museum

I enjoyed this visit, I learned a lot, and there are definitely some areas this museum could easily improve upon to boost their engagement and satisfaction, particularly with younger visitors (Millennial and Gen Z demographics specifically, with Baby Boomers in there too due to their close connection with Millennials). 

The National Atomic Testing Museum
Address: 755 E. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas, NV 89119 
Phone: (702) 794-5124