Concept for historical Hanford exhibit unveiled

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 15, 2014 

RENDERING BY HELVETICKA

The Hanford nuclear reservation exhibit planned for the opening of The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center on July 1 would tell the story of the race to build an atomic bomb during World War II.

As soon as that Manhattan Project exhibit opens, fundraising would start for the next Hanford exhibit, which would tell the story of Hanford's role in the nuclear weapons buildup of the Cold War.

The Reach unveiled conceptual plans for the Manhattan Project exhibit Wednesday at a Richland meeting attended by about 50 people.

The audience included several docents at the CREHST museum who said they thought the focus of the planned exhibit is too narrow to answer questions they frequently hear about Hanford at the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology.

The CREHST museum in Richland will close Jan. 31 in preparation for the opening of the Reach, which may use some of CREHST's Hanford artifacts and materials.

The initial exhibit, which is planned to stay up for three years, would start with visitors reading a quote on the exterior wall from Albert Einstein's 1939 letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt raising concerns that the United States needed to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany did. It would convey the urgency of producing an atomic bomb, a theme that would run through the exhibit.

Inside the exhibit gallery, visitors could wander around about 15 small areas telling different pieces of the WWII story, said Aaron Bragg, a writer at Helveticka in Spokane. The company was hired to create the exhibit.

The goal was to take a big subject and break it down into "chapters," and to interest a wide range of people, from school children to those who lived through the Manhattan Project, said CK Anderson, a principal at Helveticka.

A replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, fueled with plutonium made at Hanford would hang above visitors.

Visitors would learn some basic science to understand the production of plutonium at Hanford, done when producing plutonium had advanced little beyond laboratory demonstrations. Another area of the exhibit would focus on B Reactor, telling the story of the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor.

The story of the people who came to Hanford during the war also would be told, from the scientists and politicians who gambled that the untested technology would work, to the laborers who lived in Quonset huts and trailers in the desert. Stories of secrecy, termination winds and racial integration on the job and segregation off the job would be told, using the workers' recorded voices when possible.

The look would be consciously low-tech to take visitors back to the 1940s. To hear early workers speak, visitors would pick up the ear pieces on black, rotary dial phones.

Before visitors left they would be asked to share their thoughts, answering questions such as what would have happened if the Manhattan Project had failed to develop the two atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. Answers would be displayed on old-fashioned clothes lines strung along a wall to allow people to see what other visitors thought.

The displays would focus primarily on Hanford, but also touch on the roles played by other Manhattan Project sites across the nation and would include information about Nagasaki, Japan, and the choices made by the military and administration during the war.

The Reach plans to eventually develop four Hanford exhibits: the Manhattan Project, the Cold War years, environmental cleanup and public access to Hanford. When the Reach building can be expanded, they will all be housed together, said Lisa Toomey, chief executive of The Reach.

Six months ago there was no money for a Hanford exhibit, Toomey said. At that time there was $2.4 million from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to tell the story of the Hanford Reach in the main gallery, including information about the Ice Age floods, tribes, settlers and plants and animals. The second gallery was planned to be used for rotating exhibits.

But the community was clear that the Reach must tell the story of Hanford, Toomey said. Since then $100,000 has been raised for a Hanford exhibit, the minimum needed. Toomey would like to raise another $50,000, which would allow the first Hanford exhibit to use modular displays that could then be reused for other Hanford exhibits.

In part because of the 70th anniversary of B Reactor, the Reach chose to open with a Manhattan Project exhibit. It also would support a proposal before Congress to make B Reactor part of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, with buses for tours of the reactor possibly leaving from the Reach.

The Hanford exhibit must fit in about 1,500 square feet of space, about the size of the Richland library gallery where the Wednesday meeting was held.

However, CREHST in Richland had about 4,000 square feet of space devoted to telling the Hanford story.

But many of the questions docents at CREHST receive now, particularly from people outside the Tri-Cities, are about the environmental contamination and cleanup of Hanford and people would not find that information at the proposed Hanford exhibit, several said.

Hanford has an "evil reputation" among those on the West side of the state, and about 20 to 30 percent of visitors are worried, said Cal Heeb, a docent.

Other people at the meeting said information is needed to put Hanford's risk in perspective, particularly as its leak-prone waste tanks make national news.

It comes down to money, Toomey said. Initially, there only is money to tell the Manhattan Project story, she said.

But there will be other opportunities beyond physical exhibits to learn more about Hanford, she said. Lectures and themed events, like mess hall meals, are planned, she said.

The Wednesday meeting was a final step before finalizing Helveticka's conceptual plan for the exhibit.

One of the next steps will be choosing artifacts and other items to display to help tell the Manhattan Project story. The exhibit should be ready at the end of May for the July 1 opening, Toomey said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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