Iconic Objects Represent Many People And Their Stories

Visitors check out the exhibits at the Los Alamos History Museum. Courtesy photo

An exhibit at the Los Alamos History Museum. Courtesy photo

An exhibit at the Los Alamos History Museum. Courtesy photo

By Heather McClenahan
Executive Director
Los Alamos Historical Society

A wrought iron gate, a smudged letter, and an old drum might rarely have intrinsic value. Rather, at least in the case of a museum, their value is in the stories behind them—what they represent—that gives them meaning.

Such is the case at the Los Alamos History Museum.

One of the most prominent objects on display at the museum is an old, black gate. It isn’t fancy and probably isn’t much different from many other such gates scattered throughout New Mexico. However, when you realize that every civilian scientist on the Manhattan Project and many of their family members walked through that gate at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, it becomes representative of thousands of people. It creates an opportunity to tell their stories and to spark the imagination.

What was it like to move to a secret city in the middle of a war? Was it a time of fear or adventure or both? What did it mean to leave behind family, whom you were unable to tell what you were doing or even where you were going? How long would the war last? What changes would this top-secret project bring about in the world?
The Los Alamos History Museum has many such objects on display to help trigger curiosity and further interest in our local history.

Why do we show off a letter addressed to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe? It was the only address used by all of the civilians—thousands of people—who were in Los Alamos during the war.

It was also the post office box in which many Los Alamos children were born, at least according to their birth certificates. Hundreds of whimsical stories have come out of the use of that single post office box, and it also became part of the title of a best-selling book about what life was like in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, Inside Box 1663. Author Eleanor Jette lived that life.

Another iconic object on display is a Cochiti drum that belonged to Richard Feynman, a young man on the project who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in physics. Feynman was known as a prankster, someone who, among other mischiefs, would crack office safes to show the lack of security at the lab.

The tales from Manhattan Project days claim that Feynman, who lived in a dormitory, would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and begin pounding on that drum to help clarify his thoughts.

Did that pounding lead to his Nobel Prize? We may never know, but we do know that his roommates absolutely did not appreciate it!

For years, Los Alamos Historical Society staff heard rumors that Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous porkpie hat was in the collections of the Smithsonian. After talking with several staff members there, though, we have determined it is not.

If you ever run across anyone who knows where it is, be sure to let your History Museum know. That would be an object representative of our history!

The Los Alamos History Museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends.

Admission is $5 per person and is free to members of the Los Alamos Historical Society, Los Alamos County residents, children, and active-duty members of the military.

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