The lower 48 can seem like a foreign country, not always, but often enough. It’s strange to think so. I mean, I lived down there for over 40 years, so why would it seem so strange to me now? Anyway, it often does.
This feeling came through particularly strong last semester when I agreed to accompany a minor to a chemistry conference in San Diego. I often find myself working on the margins of my own fields, but I have to admit this one was a little bit of a stretch. So, it was with particular joy that I suddenly found myself looking at a bit of Alaskan history.
Right there in San Diego.
I had just descended below deck aboard The Star of India, one of several ships at the Maritime Museum, and there it was, a whole display on the Alaskan fish packing industry, or at least the role The Star of Indian played in shipping the products of fishing out to other parts. I was already enjoying the museum, and I had long since warmed to my stay in San Diego when I saw this.
This was interesting.
There is something a little perverse about the trajectory that brings me here from the edge of civilization near to its centers only to find the ghosts of so many fish who’ve made that same trip themselves. Whether it’s a perverse irony or a perverse synchrony, I’m not sure, but either way these artifacts of an extractive industry shouldn’t really have surprised me. I enjoy living on the edge of nowhere, though I do so with the full benefits of the modern world to keep me warm and well connected to the rest of y’all, and of course, there is no real escape from the global economy. If places like Alaska are good for fishing, it goes without saying that when they are good enough, a fair portion of stories told about those fish will be told in other places.
Places like San Diego.
Anyway, you never know when a trip out will lead you to a little glimpse of home.
Originally named the Euterpe, this vessel was built in 1863. She hauled salmon out of Alaska from 1902 to 1923, being renamed The Star of India in 1906. As steamships came to dominate the industry, she was finally retired in 1926. Today, she is docked at the Maritime Museum, though she is still seaworthy. You can find a few videos of her out on the water.
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.” In it, Turner bucked the prevailing historical wisdom of the day to say that American history was in fact quite distinct from that of Europe, and that this was due to the existence of the frontier. The opportunity to move freely into unoccupied land, and the struggle with nature to carve civilization out of that land, that wilderness, gave America and Americans a unique character.
…according to Turner, at any rate.
Suffice to say, the Turner thesis caught on, not just in the historical professions, but also throughout American popular culture. One can hardly imagine western fiction without it, or even the lyrics of mainstream country music. So, when I say, according to Turner, I of course mean, “and a whole lot of other people right along with him.” The Turner thesis has become so ubiquitous it would be hard to find a single genre of artistic expression or a vein of American politics it has not influenced, or for that matter a person who doesn’t invoke its themes from time to time.
To say that all of this is problematic is putting it rather mildly, and countless books have been written exploring the many problems of the frontier thesis, just as countless books have been written applying it to various aspects of American history.
Needless to say, Native Americans have come up a few times, particularly in reference to that notion of free and unoccupied land so central to the frontier thesis. We’ll save that for another post.
…or maybe 10 other posts.
One of the most interesting problems with the frontier thesis has to do with the timing. See, most people would reckon that the frontier was basically closed by 1893, not too long before that, to be sure, but by most accounts, it was certainly closed by 1893. So, if that frontier is what makes America and Americans unique, then what do we make of everything that comes after its closure? If the frontier was the driving force in American history, then what is significant about America and Americans long after the became an ex frontier?
To raise the question in a more practical tone; if the original is already gone, then can we find another? What is the new frontier?
Yes, that question has been asked many times by many people.
Various answers have been offered.
What has me thinking about all this today is a recent visit to a museum, The Spirit of the West Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. More specifically, I am thinking of one of the exhibits on the second floor of this museum. It is entitled, “From the Mountains to the Moon,” exploring the life work of the artist Paul Calle. The man was an amazing artist, and the exhibit carries a good deal of his work, much of which deals with themes quite closely connected to the frontier, but what specifically gives the exhibit its title is the contrast between his many paintings of mountain men, and his depiction of the Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, taking man’s first step onto the moon. This might seem a Hell of a leap, from Mountain Men to the moon, but of course, there are certain elements of continuity.
You can see these traces of continuity in at least two of the paintings in this exhibit, along with the narratives attached to them. The first of these is entitled “The Great Moment.” It is most remarkable for its presence in an exhibit otherwise filled with western Americana (and a few other things to be sure), but the mere presence of this great painting alongside so many depictions of mountain men, Indians, and western landscape creates an interesting juxtaposition. It is enough to get someone asking, how and why did this piece get here?
“This painting of my friend Neil Armstrong by my friend Paul Calle combines for me the best of two worlds. NASA’s technological achievements and an artist’s exquisite interpretation of it. It looks as beautiful today as it did forty years ago, and it will one hundred years from now.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11, Command Module Pilot
So, how and why did that painting get here?
Well, the best explanation can be found alongside one of Calle’s more typical pieces.
“I have always liked the image of mountain man John Colter his moccassin clad foot first stepping on the newly fallen snow of the Yellowstone Valley to the Moon boot of Neil Armstrong stepping in the dust of the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Two worlds apart, yet each of a new frontier. – Paul Calle
Moni and I are back in the icebox now, having just returned from a relatively short bout of southyness over the Christmas break. Didn’t get to see near enough of our loved ones, but it was good to connect with those we could.
We made a stop at one of my favorite haunts in Vegas, the Neon Museum, otherwise known as The Boneyard. This is the afterlife for many of the old marquees used on the strip and throughout town. It’s strange for me, because I used to live in the Vegas area (Boulder City, to be exact). I remember some of these signs when they were alive and in the wild, so to speak. I should say that I sort of remember them. The Strip and much of what most people think of as Vegas was always just as foreign to me as it might be to the tourists coming through town. I don’t think that’s an unusual perspective for locals, but it does give Vegas nostalgia an interesting mix of oddity and familiarity. One of the cultural consequences of tourism, I suppose, a past rendered both intimate and alien. Of course, in this case, the whole thing comes surrounded with the faint glow of neon lights.
Moni and I took a daytime tour of the museum a couple years ago, and we’ve been planning to go back ever since. This time, we made it! Thanks to Mark Thiel of Powel’s Camera Shop for helping us to figure out a few things about our new(ish) cameras. Moni and I made the Neon Museum our testing ground, so to speak. Looking at the photos now, I can see that I have a lot of practice to do, but anyway, the place is cool enough to overcome my clumsy camera skills in at least a couple pics.
The guided tours are an interesting mix of commentary on the signs themselves and stories about old Vegas. One minute you are learning about how they bend neon tubes to make the signs, and the next you are hearing about the role of divorce tourism in the mid-century development of the city. The tours are at their best in those moments when the two themes come together in a single narrative. The stars on the old Stardust marquee are a good example of that. As I recall our old daytime tour-guide related a rumor he couldn’t quite vouch for that they might have been meant to reflect the fall of radioactive dust in the days of nuclear testing. Our night guide on this tour was content to connect them to the era of space exploration. Either way, it’s interesting to see larger patterns of history in the very objects in front of you, or at least in the stories told about them.
My favorite story would have to be that of the Moulin Rouge accord. It’s hard to get a good picture of the Moulin Rouge sign, because it’s so big and distributed in with so many other signs, but the casino played an interesting role in Vegas history. So, it features prominently in the tours. As the first of the Vegas casinos to desegregate, it quickly became a Vegas hot spot, a place where the you could see Frank Sinatra hanging out with Sammy Davis Jr. after doing their own shows. So, it was fitting that the Moulin Rouge would pay a role in the civil rights movement. Facing protests in 1960 over segregation throughout the city, hotel owners met with civil rights leaders at the (already closed) Moulin Rouge. The resulting agreement desegregated the Las Vegas strip.
The tour guides have lots of other stories, of course. I wish I could remember them all.
(Anyway, …click to embiggen!)
Beginning of the tour (You can see the Moulin Rouge sign, sorta)
Whole lotta pink going on here.
Vegas Vic is kinda fuzzy here. (I think he’d been drinking.)
The Lucky Duck
She’s just relaxing
This was the first openly gay bar in Vegas
Vegas Vic in a clearer moment
Sometimes the neon light takes a back seat to the sunlight
From a dry-cleaner, I think
The end of the tour
Cruelty to tourguides. I am guilty of cutting this one in half. (So sorry)
I Made a quick stop recently at the Alaska Veterans Museum on 4th Street in Anchorage. I’ve written about this place before, but of course they’ve changed a few things around. I’m continually amazed at the amount of material they manage to cram into such a small space. The whole facility is clearly a labor of love.
Anyway, this little throw pillow definitely caught my attention. I think we’ll just let it speak for itself.
Statue of Liberty Doll Sealskin, velour, cotton, rabbit, simulated sinew, thread, wire, Cup’ik, Maker: Rosalie Paniyak, UA 2001-008-0003
Back in May, I made a stop at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Lots of interesting stuff in there, but this one piece in particular caught my attention. The information card next to Miss Liberty had a nice note from the museum director. It reads as follows:
“I’m a Native New York who 13 years ago left the big city for the paradise of Alaska. Rosalie Paniyak’s Statue of Liberty doll is, for me, one of the funniest works of art in the entire museum, and the embodiement of what I left and what I have now.
“When I lived in lower Manhattan, my dog and I would walk along the Hudson River.There was Ms. Liberty, tall, strong, and noble, an image that took itself very seriously. Moreover, it welcomed people to a Very Important City.
“Rosalie’s Statue of Liberty is soft, with a face that is anything but dignified. She holds her torch askew. She is the Cup’ik version of an American icon, humorous and irreverent.
“After I enjoy its visual irony, what does this doll say to me? On the lighter side, that New Yorkers’ sense of self-importance is a bit silly. And more seriously, that this privilege of liberty has not always been enjoyed by everyong, such as Native Americans.”
To the left is one of my favorite images from a mural painted by Shonto Begay and Mike Scovel at the Fort Sumner Memorial in New Mexico. What’s to be memorialized at Fort Sumner, you might ask? It was the site of an internment camp, one which held the Navajo people for roughly 4 years (about 1864-1868). It also held Mescalero Apaches, but Begay’s and Scovel’s mural is about the Navajo end of this story. Specifically, it is about “the long walk” to this place, still called Hwéeldi out in Navajo country.
What fascinates me about the image is a trick of context. It’s just one part of a rather breathtaking piece of art, but to me it’s definitely the most interesting. The larger mural wraps around the wall on both sides of a hallway at the memorial. If you follow the hallway, you come to a small movie theater where you an watch a short film about the long walk and the Navajo experience at Hwéeldi. The images are striking. Devastating. They depict a national disgrace, and in surrounding us with the images, this mural invites us to see that disgrace, not from the standpoint of objective observer, but from the standpoint of someone in the midst of it. Walking down that hallway, one is surrounded on both sides by images of people (Navajos) herded along by soldiers and scouts. The mural depicts a great deal of suffering, and it places that suffering all around us. Begay’s and Scovel’s work denies us the chance to step outside the event and view it as a disinterested party.
But when you come to this image, the immersion takes on a more dramatic significance. Suddenly, it becomes clear why all the solders seem to be facing us. The Navajo figures simply plod along, mostly looking in other directions, but the soldiers, they look right at us as we stand in that hallway.
It’s an interesting effect to begin with, but when you walk down that hallway, at some point that soldier’s rifle is pointed at you. The soldier in that painting doesn’t care who you are, what your ethnicity is. He doesn’t even care what your plans are for later in the day. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his rifle seems to follow your movements a bit, at least for a step or two. (I swear it does!) It’s a rather brilliant move on the part of the artists, because it places his viewers in the scene more effectively than anything else. More than placing the viewers in the scene, it confers a specific role on the viewer, as one of those forced along the walk.
It’s just art of course. We will at some point walk on to other parts of the exhibit, and many of us will no doubt shake off the effect of the image a bit quicker than those whose family histories include stories of those lost along the way. Still it’s an interesting contrast with the many times non-natives have chosen ourselves to assume some aspect of a native identity. Whether playing Indian as school-children, wearing a headdress at some music festival, or aping the Tonto-speak of Indian characters in countless westerns, many of us have done it at one time or another. Hell, some people have made a life out of it! Countless non-Indian actors have played Indians on screen, and countless non-Indian characters have become Indians in the story-arc of a common movie theme. And of course there is the Washington football team! What all of these other examples have in common, is a choice to assume some part of native identity, if only for a moment. They also have in common that the identity assumed creates a positive experience for those choosing it. When we non-natives play at being Indian, we get something out of it. It may not be much, often little more than a momentary source of amusement, but the choice is ours, and when choose it, we do so to our own advantage.
That’s the genius of this particular image. It forces that same transformation on anyone walking through the memorial. For just a moment, it makes us play Indian, and to do so on terms we didn’t choose for ourselves. On terms no-one would choose for themselves! We will survive that moment of course, perhaps even without really learning much from it. Still, it’s an interesting twist in the narrative.
That moment, when the business end of a rifle points you right into the story.
Here are a few more images from the mural (click to embiggen)!
One of the dominant themes in Vegas area museums would have to be the struggle with nature. By ‘nature’ I of course mean the desert. It’s kind of fascinating to me as parallel themes dominate literature and cinema dealing with the arctic. It’s a pretty straight-forward notion in either event. Extreme environments help to frame a basic man-against-nature story-line, which is a common enough theme in fiction as well as some historical narratives, even a good number of anthropological works.
Where the arctic narratives focus on cold and the lack of food, Vegas area narratives focus on heat and lack of food & water. Both themes definitely have a little space reserved for the indigenous peoples of the region. “How did THEY survive?” would seem to be a common question, one which segways easily into stories about how WE survive now. The part about how WE survive typically morphs into a larger narrative about thriving civilization. Okay, so the North Slope of Alaska may be a little soft on the civilization theme, not that that’s ever stopped a runaway narrative, but more to the point, in Vegas that narrative steams full bore ahead to land us in a world of casinos, mobsters, and showgirls.
…but those narratives often start with Paiutes.
Okay, so sometimes these narratives start with older Puebloan societies or even Paleo-Indians, but even then the stories quicken with the arrival of Paiutes into the area. These were the indigenous community of Las Vegas when Europeans arrived, so they figure more prominently in plot-lines anticipating those casinos and showgirls. Not surprisingly, the Vegas area museums often use the presence of Paiutes in the valley to frame general questions about survival in the desert, questions that will then play well into later developments in the area. Their own modest use of the area sets the stage in these stories for the mega-resorts of today. And if that seems an odd contrast, that is precisely the point. A miracle in the desert, so to speak. It’s all the more miraculous if we catch a glimpse of its modest beginnings.
A Convenience Store (Not
Of course, American stories of progress often treat Native Americans as just one more feature of nature standing in the way of progress, but I honestly think most of these museums try to handle things a little better than that. Still, there is a bit of slippage here and there. Anyway, the topic is worth a little time on my keyboard, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
What first got me interested in this was a visit to the Mormon Fort, a state park commemorating the first Anglo-American settlement in the Vegas Valley. It contains a number of exhibits, one of which enables you to watch a video recounting the history of Vegas from the creation of the fort itself up through to the development boom of the 1980s (about the time my own family moved into the area). It’s the story of a city built in the midst of a hot desert, and that story begins with the discovery of two springs by European explorers.
This story takes off when Brigham Young sends a small group of missionaries to build at Fort at the Springs to serve as a weigh station on the way to Southern California. According to the video, local Paiutes had used the Springs for irrigation projects, so there is little doubt as to a native presence at the Springs. Still, when those first missionaries up and leave, the video suggests that their major accomplishment was to prove that people could make a permanent settlement in the area.
…which of course leaves me wondering what about the Paiute? Hadn’t they already proved that?
This may not be as egregious as it sounds. I could well see white folks at the time thinking of it in that light, biased as it is, so I could see the point of calling attention to this perspective. Still, the commentary in the video is as invested in the bias as any Anglo-American might have been at the time the missionaries left, and so the resulting narrative does seem to erase the Paiute. There is enough information about the local Paiute around the rest of Mormon Fort and even in the video itself to contradict that kind of thinking, but the story-line has its own impact.
Could be worse, could be better.
Mostly, it could be better.
That said, the Mormon Fort is a great place in its own right. If you’re in the area, and have a little pocket change left, I would definitely go check it out.
I found a couple of interesting origin-narratives for the local Paiute, one at the Clark County Museum and one at the Springs Preserve. Each of these are Coyote stories, so it goes without saying that something is going to go terribly wrong in them. That’s how trickster narratives work. Each presents the choice of a Paiute homeland as something of an accident. At the Springs Preserve, this accident seems to suggest that Paiute ended up in the wrong place. Coyote opened the basket early (somewhere between Las Vegas and Moapa). The Clark County variant suggests that people had already been escaping and heading in different directions, and Coyote closed the sack before carrying it a ways further and pouring out those who would become Paiute. Whether this means they ended up where they were supposed to go or not, I can’t tell from the source at the museum.
I’ve presented both of these stories directly below (a video and a picture). Of course this kind of presentation strips a lot of the context out of each narrative, but I think a bit of the flavor in such stories does come through. I find myself thinking of the accident in terms of the arid setting, as if it were meant to explain how Paiute ended up in such a dry location with its sparse resources. Still, I’m not sure how much of that would have been the point of the Paiute story and how much of that may be the rest of the presentations in which they occur. With so much of each exhibit devoted to explaining how these people survived in the local desert, it seems easy to think of this as the point of the accident, that Paiute weren’t really meant to be here, but perhaps just me. Either way, I can’t help thinking it’s an interesting way of thinking about how one’s people ended up where they are. Mistakes happen. Sometimes a mistake mean you ruin lunch, put up a video with bad sound quality, or end up with a low grade on a test.
…and sometimes a mistake create a world to live in.
Now the Springs Preserve is interesting in itself. This place is huge, and after four visits, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen everything. It contains the Nevada State Museum and the Origin Museum as well as a number of outdoor exhibits (one of which is the Paiute village where I recorded the origin story above). That story is one of several narratives relating to Paiutes that you can find in the Springs Preserve. The Origin Museum contains a couple more videos. One appears to be a straight-foreword history of Las Vegas beginning with the arrival of Native Americans in the area. It further mentions the brief history of interaction (including conflict) between whites and natives. A second, more dramatic video (set up in a stand of artificial tulies) appears to depict a Paiute elder greeting us (the visitors) as if she were meeting non-natives for the first time. She is friendly, of course, and explains a thing or two about her people’s survival strategies, but the video ends on a dark turn. She sees change coming, and it seems to fair to suggest this is an allusion to the hazards of contact and colonization.
Neither of these videos goes into much detail about the troubled relations between Paiute and non-natives, but each mentions them. Where the first is dry and a little up-beat, the second is cryptic and disturbing.
A quick listen to the Coyote narrative always seems to put things in perspective for me. Odd, I know to want to follow modern history with an origin narrative, but I doubt Coyote would object.
Oh, the videos!
The Springs Preserve also contains a history of Las Vegas as portrayed in paintings by the artist Roy Purcell. The only explicit mention of natives I recall seeing in this exhibit is a reference to Spanish raids on local Indians. That’s pretty much it. It’s an interesting history. I at least would have found it a bit more interesting if it had a place for the indigenous population. His website suggests that Purcell is working on Native American subjects now. This sounds promising.
No pictures are allowed in the Purcell exhibit, so I haven’t anything to show for that part of the Springs Preserve.
The Nevada State Museum (also in the Springs Preserve) doesn’t seem as focused on questions of subsistence, but it does have a few interesting pieces on indigenous peoples of the area. A life-size photo of Sarah Winnemucca had me wondering if she wasn’t a bit south of her usual residence. My personal fussiness aside, she certainly deserves a place in the Nevada STATE Museum. The museum also includes a video presentation in which a modern actress interprets some of her words for visitors at the Museum. Similar videos provide a glimpse of Wovoka’s prophesies, and a woman whose name translates to Little Willow teaches us a bit about basket-making. Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the audios. To get the full experience, you’ll just have to go to the Museum.
There is one other thing I really must say about the Nevada State Museum, and that it that it seems to contain the White Tree of Gondor. Oh, they call it a Great Basin Bristle Cone Pine, but I know the White Tree of Gondor when I see it. You can’t fool me!
I know, this has nothing to do with Paiutes, but seriously, I think the White Tree of Gondor deserves at least a mention. Don’t you?
I’ve written about the Atomic Testing Museum before, and I don’t have a lot to add here, except to note that the museum does reference the indigenous populations of the testing zones. It’s a smallish display by comparison, focusing primarily on cultural preservation. By some accounts Newe Segobia is the most bombed nation in the world, but that story falls a bit North of this post. It’s worth noting though, the general tenor of the Museum’s approach to Native Americans. They want us to know they are trying to do the right thing, but their treatment of the issue doesn’t really escape the largely pro-testing narratives of the museum as a whole.
Let me conclude with a smattering of selected photos from the museums. As always, you may click to embiggen.
Paiute Village in the Springs Preserve
Springs Preserve (Origen Museum)
Mormon Fort describes pre-contact use of the Springs area for crops
Display in the Mormon Fort
Very cool diorama in the Mormon Fort
White Tree of Gondor, …duh!
Sarah Winnemucca at the Nevada State Museum
Atomic Testing MUseum
Atomic Testing Museum
Atomic Testing Museum
Clark County Museum
Clark County Museum
Clark County Museum
This mural depicts Southern Paiute. Yes, it’s on the side of a 7-11. I don’t know what to make of that.
I was a little surprised to see a museum crammed into one of the small shops on 4th street in Anchorage. I was even more surprised to find just how much history they managed to cram into The Alaska Veterans Museum. It’s best to take your time in this place, because every inch of wall space in this venues contains something worth a second look, and maybe even a third.
The museum is of course a testament to the lives and work of Alaska’s veterans. For those of us interested in the history of Alaska, it also contains materials illustrating some of the more interesting parts of Alaskan history. No sooner had I walked through the door, for example, than the volunteer asked me if I knew where the last shots of the civil war had been fired. I suppose “the Shenandoah” wasn’t technically the right answer, but he smiled when I said it, and anyway, the point is they have a section for the history of this Confederate buccaneer up on the wall here.
…which had me smiling from the start of my visit.
The museum also features extensive coverage of the Aleutian campaign. It’s one of the quirks of Alaskan history. Where most of the lower 48 speaks of World War II as something that happened ‘over there’, some of the fighting actually did take place in this state. Not only did the Japanese bomb Dutch Harbor, they also occupied two islands in the Aleutian chain, all of which is well represented in the collections on display here at the museum.
The Alaskan Territorial Guard also gets prominent treatment here, though I am ashamed to say I didn’t get great pictures of that section. Just clumsy lensmanship on my part. The museum itself covers the history of this unit, comprised largely of Alaska Natives under the leadership of Major Marvin ‘Muktuk’ Marston. The unit (including a number of women) was charged with monitoring the coastline to act as a first line of defense. They also had to be on the look out for balloon bombs (sent over the Pacific in the hopes of starting forest fires in the U.S.).
The museum includes several outstanding dioramas, most of which feature naval operations. I struggled to get a good picture of the aircraft carrier, but in the end I had to settle for a few close-ups. The model itself was just too big to get in a single shot.
I was unfamiliar with the story of the U.S.S. Grunion, a submarine lost near Kiska, so this part of the exhibit was entirely new to me. One particular veteran, Percy Blatchford, had a section to himself. You can find him around the net as well. Each of the major conflicts of American history receive some treatment here, in each case focusing on the experiences of Alaskan military personnel.
A couple stories that didn’t get into the museum (at least I don’t think so) would include the Navy’s bombing of Angoon in 1882 and the story of Aleutian internment. They do cover the Japanese internment of Aleutians, but no mention is made of those taken off those Islands by the U.S. personnel. I’m not entirely sure I caught everything during my visits last month, and I am still amazed at the breadth of materials they got into the collection. As I understand it, they have a great deal more in storage, and that storage may be spilling into the homes of those behind the museum itself. It’s obviously a labor of love, so I suppose that is to be expected.
On one of my visits to the Museum, I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Suellyn Wright Novak who heads up the Museum. She had a number of great stories to tell, including that of the Alaskan Territorial Guard statue out in front. Some wonder why it doesn’t have a plaque on it? Those more observant have wondered why the information plaque is behind the guardsman. It turns out, the museum staff just didn’t want anyone to be run-over while reading the plaque from the street.
I am posting a few pics here, but of course they don’t do the museum justice. As usual, you may click to embiggen.
Course of the Shenandoah
Carrier Model Goodness
Moar Epic Diorama!
Epic Diorama Again
Aircraft Carrier Again
DId I mention they have a model carrier?
They definitely have a model carrier
I think I would want a lot more uniform!
Map of Kiska
Alaska Territorial Guard
Alaska Territorial Guard Etched on Baleen
The U.S.S. Grunion
The U.S.S. Grunion
A Dress made of Parachute Silk
Bombing of Dutch Harbor
A Pilot’s Story
Hazards of making a wedding dress out of parachute silk.
U.S. Revenue Cutter, The Bear (This ship appears in many stories about Alaska)
The Atomic testing Museum in Las Vegas would be among the more interesting places I visited this summer. The museum has two major exhibits, one for Atomic testing and one for Area 51. I’m really not sure what to make of the Area 51 section, and really I’d just as son not be picked up by the Men in Black, so we’ll just leave commentary on that aside for the present. Besides, the Atomic Testing Museum provides plenty of interesting material t consider.
Seeing the Dina Titus reading room in there made me smile. It’s been a long time, but I do remember my old Political Science Professor rather fondly. Her book, Bombs in the Backyard would be the most obvious connection to this facility, though I’m not entirely sure how much of a role she played in the development of the museum and it’s collections. She does provide one of the more critical voices in one of the films shown in museum. I find myself wondering if her views couldn’t have received more coverage.
I’d have to say the material collections in this museum are fantastic. I’ll include a few pictures, but they really don’t do the place justice. It’s worth a trip to see this stuff, so remember this place if you’re ever in Las Vegas and your hangover is under control. Of course you may also pick up a bit about Nuclear testing at the Neon Museum, because nuclear tourism was once so very Vegas. But of course the Atomic testing Museum is a long way from Neon. Much of it is drab green and grey, just like I remember my dad’s old military paraphernalia, which is very fitting I suppose.
There is a tremendously matter-of-fact tone to the presentation in this museum. As you proceed down it’s halls you will learn how scientists first came to understand the possibilities which would give rise to nuclear technology; you will learn about the rush to acquire that technology during World War II, and you will learn about the many twists and turns of the nuclear arms race which would follow. Also you will learn about the steps and procedures taken to set up and run the actual facilities in Nevada.What bothers me is just how unproblematic each step in this process would seem to be in the narratives this museum provides.
The Atomic testing Museum presents the rationale for each stage in the history of its subject in a very straightforward manner. It does the same with protests, and even with various decisions to scale back nuclear testing and/or to discontinue certain programs. I wouldn’t say that the museum slights the protest movement in an overt manner, but the museum leaves a strong impression that the development of nuclear technology proceeded along a rational course. Whatever the pros and cons of nuclear testing, and of specific events in the history of nuclear testing, the planning process behind that history was, at least as far as the narrators here would have it, utterly reasonable.
This is of course exactly how I remember those in favor of nuclear testing presenting the case for it when I lived in Nevada. It’s also what I see whenever I dip my toes into the history of Atomic power. For whatever its worth, this does appear to be the view of those who worked in the industry. And of course those who worked in the industry are strongly represented in the Museum and its supporters.
This doesn’t mean that the museum is insensitive to critics of Atomic testing, but it does mean that the narrative presentation at the museum provides a strong bias in favor of the grounds for testing in each of its various phases. Whether testing is right or wrong, so it would seem, the case for doing was always a function of careful, rational consideration. The problem is of course that this just isn’t entirely true. It may well be that the arms race was inevitable. It may well be that the bomb needed to be dropped on Japan, as so many still argue today. It may even be that we needed to keep testing for so many years into the cold war. All these things may well be (and yet they may not), but that doesn’t mean that each step in the process can be fully explained as a rationale decision by someone genuinely interested in pursuing national security.
There are moments in the history of Nuclear testing in which the larger narratives just don’t fully explain what’s going on; moments in which the fingerprints of Dr. Strangelove seem to be found all over the course of nuclear testing; moments in the mad scientist seems to upstage the soldiers and scientist doing heir grim duty for the sake of loved ones, the nation, and possibly the entire world. When I see images of U.S. troops marching towards ground zero of an explosion because someone wanted to see how the bomb would affect troop movements, I can’t help thinking that I’m seeing one such moment in the history of nuclear testing
I look at such an image and I can’t help but wonder at the supposed reason for putting those troops in harms way, at least on that particular day and in that particular manner. Was this really a serious research question? Or was someone doing that simply because they could? Because they could put people out there and expose them to great danger in the name of science, and because being able to put human beings in danger for any reason must be one of the surest signs ever that you are somebody and that what you do is important.
I’m fairly certain that I see one such moment in one of the smaller placards of the museum, that devoted to Operation Plowshare. The placard reads as follows:
The Atomic Energy Commission’s Plowshare Program was named after a Biblical verse referring to “beating swords into plowshares.” The program was intended to find peaceful applications for nuclear weapons.
The Plowshare program, initiated in 1958, sought to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives to construct major facilities such as canals, harbors, earthen dams, and other engineering projects. Twenty-Six of the 35 Plowshare nuclear experiments were conducted at the Nevada test site. In 1961, the first off-site multi-purpose experiment, “Project Gnome,” near Carlsbad New Mexico was fired in a salt dome to study heat generated by a nuclear explosion, isotope and energy production, and seismic measurements. The most notable experiment in 1962 was Sedan, a 104 kiloton thermonuclear detonation, equivalent t an earthquake magnitude of 4.75 on the Richter Scale. The blast displaced 12 million tons of earth, creating a crater 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep. The crater could hold four football fields, end to end. Concluding the experiments in 1973 was Rio Blanco near Rifle, Colorado which focused on fracturing natural gas-bearing formations. The Plowshare program terminated in 1975 due to waning industrial interest and mounting public concern about the environmental consequences.
Not mentioned in this placard would one of the Plowshare projects never completed, Project Chariot. Project Chariot was an effort to build a harbor via nuclear detonations at a site just south of Point Hope, Alaska. Dan ONeill’s book, The Firecracker Boys provides a pretty thorough account of the politics behind this project as well as the opposition which eventually killed the project. Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson’s documentary, Project Chariot, also provides an interesting take on the subject, one focused the local Iñupiat population and their efforts to deal with the lasting impact of their brief encounter with an almost-bombing. I don’t particularly wish to rehash the full subject here, but it’s hardly a study in rational scientific inquiry. The Atomic Energy Commission ignored a great deal of science in planning the project, misrepresented the findings of its own scientists, lied to the people of Point Hope, and finally, when forced to abandon their plans to bomb the Alaskan coastline, the research team left radioactive material buried at the site without telling anyone.
I think about project Chariot when I read this placard telling us about the many successes of Operation Plowshare, when I see this matter of fact discussion of Plowshare’s goals and the simple decision to discontinue it. I think about the lives of scientists whose careers were trashed because they opposed it, and I think about the people in Point Hope today still unsure of just what did actually happen in their region, still wondering what effect it had upon them. In it’s pursuit of Project Chariot, the behavior of the Atomic Energy Commission was (as ONeill suggests) closer to that of kids with firecrackers, all-too eager to blow something up, than the sort of benign search for new ways to help mankind that one might expect from reading this placard on Operation Plowshare.
I think about all that, and I wonder how many similar stories never made it into the placards at the Atomic Testing Museum.
(Gallery. You may click the pictures. Don’t worry. They won’t explode!)
Newe Segobia, the most bombed nation on earth. …did I type that out loud?
A couple years back, I wrote this review of the Erotic Heritage Museum here in Las Vegas. I’ve since learned that they have undertaken some renovation at the center and so I decided to go back and have another look. I was curious to see what might be different. It has always seemed to me that the people behind the museum haven’t made up their minds what they are trying to accomplish. Is this a museum or is it promotional device for commercial pornography, and more specifically for those involved with Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine? As I indicated previously, I don’t think they’ve done a good job of settling their priorities at this place. It could be a lot sexier. It could also be a lot more informative.
What bothered me most in my last review of the museum was the lack of context in regards to ethnographic materials. Surrounded by images of mainstream porn, for example, a deflowering device from Africa looks a lot like a simple dildo, and I can’t help thinking the message it sends here is something like ‘Africans are kinky’. Now multiply this by countless similar artifacts deserving of real explanation, at least in any place that pretends to be a museum. The Erotic Heritage Museum really does possess quite a collection of erotic artifacts. It could provide the basis for a Hell of a museum, if only its managers would take their own mission seriously.
The most striking thing about its current incarnation is the increased presence of scandal themes in its present displays. The Museum still has its ‘Wall of Shame’ devoted to political scandals, and it still has some references to Hustler Magazine’s work in exposing a number of those scandals and Defending the First Amendment.
I can certainly understand Hustler magazine’s interest in exposing the hypocrisy of their enemies, but this does raise questions about the role of such depictions in the museum itself. Is this really erotica? Does it really have a significant role to play in the history of erotic representation? And if so, does this museum help us to understand that role?
If anything, the museum has increased the space it devotes to scandals. The opening lobby, for example, now features an article discussing its owner’s decision to offer Monica Lewinsky a job. Harry Money (an associate of Larry Flynt) offered Lewinsky a job at the museum along with a substantial salary back in 2014. Apparently, he did not hear back from her. As I remember it, this sort of thing wouldn’t be unusual in the pages of Hustler Magazine, but it’s worth asking what role it plays in the history of erotic representations? Is this actually erotic? Does it further our understanding of sex? …or of sexual representation?
I can’t help thinking that there might be a way to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, but the path to that affirmative answer probably gives new meaning to the concept of voyeurism. Don’t get me wrong. I’m un-phased at the thought of watching someone perform sexually explicit acts. It’s the thought that someone may be getting off on simply knowing the activities of political parties that squicks me here, just a little. Lewinsky’s affair is either un-erotic, a political side-show unworthy of a museum devoted to sex and sexual representations, or she represents an odd kink we might just as well call ‘politics’. Added to this, I can’t help thinking such material incorporates a certain delight in the discomfort of its subjects. If there is a pleasure here it is to had at her expense.
…all of which brings me back to the purpose of the museum itself. I can’t help thinking there is a world of difference between the historical vibrators or the old nudie magazines, Erotic paintings, sculptures, etc. to be found in the museum collections and a celebration of political scandal at the expense of the scandalized. If such scandals play a role in the history of erotic arts, it would occupy a chapter with problems of its own. Most importantly, it’s a chapter this museum does NOT help us to understand. I doubt its curators have much of a handle on its role in their own lives and in their own approaches to the subject. The museum is too interested in such scandals to provide any sense of perspective on why they might be of interest to anyone, much less what role they play in shaping our thoughts about sex and sexuality.
The museum has further expanded its interest in such things with a whole new section devoted to the sex scandals of teachers on the upper floor. A hallway circling around one of the museum’s small movie theaters has been filled with portraits of women caught having sex with their own students, each receiving an informative plaque to explain just what the woman did and how the courts dealt with her. (Significantly, I found no reference whatsoever to the scandals of men engaged in such behavior.) To one side of the wall, one can watch a streaming video detailing the stories of many of these women. Each of them ends with a rhetoric question delivered in a snarky voice; “nasty or nice?”
If this is sexy, is it the kind of sexy that belongs in a middle school locker room, or rather in the mouth of a confused young boy trying to impress his buddies in a middle school locker room.
If this is informative… nevermind. It simply isn’t.
I’m not entirely prepared that the scandalous materials have no place in the museum whatsoever. I am convinced the quantity of space devoted to scandals tells us something unfortunate about the priories of the administration at the museum. It seems to suggest these people are less interested in erotica and education than simple gossip.
It’s a shame, because this museum could be interesting. Their staff are pleasant and helpful. Their collections impressive. Again, they have a lot to work with. But it says something that the curators of this establishment would rather tell us about the sexual scandals of attractive teachers and sundry politicians than provide context for the many ethnographic pieces in their collections.
This is the politics and the sexuality of commercial pornography. It is morbid, childlike, and Unfulfilling both as a source of erotic entertainment, and as a source of information.