Floating, glowing letters greet a group of high school seniors as the doors slide open: “Welcome to the Hanford History Museum, Class of 2035!” Inside, some students check out relics from 95 years back, such as a long radiation detector nicknamed “Snoopy,” lead-lined glove boxes for handling radioactive material, a soundproofed phone booth with numbers still scrawled in pencil. Others read posters telling stories of people who worked on the Hanford site in World War II or the Cold War.
The entire back wall flickers to life in a giant video, beginning with a wide view of the building at the entrance to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in central Washington, with the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus in the background.
“In 2015 and 2016, decades of Hanford’s formerly secret history—in documents, photographs, and objects—were moved to WSU Tri-Cities to be curated, archived, and preserved in collaboration with several partners,” says a narrator as images from Hanford’s past cover the screen. “This museum uses those artifacts to tell the story of the Manhattan Project, the creation of the atomic bomb, the Hanford site, the Cold War, the ongoing environmental cleanup of toxic waste, and lingering health effects. Hanford represents one-third of the national historical park established in 2015, along with Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”
The video switches to a man standing by the nearby Columbia River, a crucial reason the government chose Hanford in 1943 for part of the atomic bomb’s assembly. A caption reads, “Michael Mays, director of the Hanford History Project, vice chancellor of academic affairs and English professor, WSU Tri-Cities.”
“The story of the building of the B Reactor itself is fascinating,” says Mays. “The culture of secrecy was tremendous. People knew they were involved in the war effort but they didn’t know what they were doing until the day the bomb was dropped.”
As he speaks, the video swoops across sagebrush desert and through the Hanford site, past old reactor buildings, and into a warehouse with long rows of shelves holding boxes and a plethora of objects ranging from control panels and warning signs to Coke bottles and 1940s bicycles for shuttling between Hanford and homes.
A tall man with long hair and a beard leads the way down the rows. The narrator says, “Tom Marceau, an archaeologist and cultural resources specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy, gathered historical material from Hanford since the early 1990s.”
“We collected objects from each period from 1943 to 1990,” says Marceau, pointing to different objects. “Here you see different styles of hand and foot counters, another hallmark of working on the Hanford site to control radiation contamination on people. You had to go through the monitors to go into clean areas.”
As the video concludes, the students of 2035 return to the stories, created from some of the Hanford history project’s 3,000 photographs, 1,600 objects, videos, and oral histories from one of the most transformative periods in human history: the dawn of the nuclear age.