Curating a Nuclear Exhibit – A Lesson in Humility

Curating a Nuclear Exhibit – A Lesson in Humility
by Connie Bogaard, 5th year IDSVA student/PhD candidate

This is my fifth year with IDSVA, and I’m juggling a museum job and teaching at the college level while working on a dissertation about museum ethics.  This fall my museum assignments include curating a show on the early history of Rocky Flats, the nuclear weapons plant outside of Denver that manufactured approximately 70,000 plutonium ‘triggers’ for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  The plant played a crucial role during the Cold War, but most Coloradans have no idea of it, let alone, what impact it had on a national and global level.  It’s prehistory at best, and it’s my job to not only bring that history back to life, but also show its relevance to our world today and mediate different levels of ‘truth’ between nuclear workers, governmental agencies and various stakeholder groups. It’s a true lesson in dialogism and a wonderful opportunity to test some of Bakhtin’s main ideas. Yet, I’m aware of the sensitivities of the people around me and my own feelings towards a history of designing, manufacturing and deploying weapons of mass destruction.

courtesy Rocky Flats Cold War Museum

My strategy, to invite the nuclear workers to act as co-curators, only works to a certain extent. For them it’s not prehistory at all. For most of the workers the bomb was a necessary evil to prevent another war, and if it hadn’t been for the nuclear industry, we would not live in peace today.  This ‘Cold War Hero’ narrative is the most prevalent story on display in most nuclear museums in the United States. The question is: How do we open up a space for dialogue and change? The best I can do, I feel, is to listen while allowing these multiple voices to act upon each other while maintaining my distance as curator-facilitator. For me it is very much a lesson in humility, to step back and allow an element of chance to ‘finish’ the work, all the while realizing that completeness and openness are relative insomuch as we’re dealing with secret, classified information and a story that is ‘unfinalized’ as long as the nuclear issues remain unresolved.