When the world lived in fear: Museum examines the Atomic Age

ASHLAND — The latest exhibit at the Strategic Air and Space Museum is a little dim, a little cramped, a little confusing.

And soon, a little musty — once they find the proper prepackaged scent.

And maybe even a little frightening, with a 12,000-pound thermonuclear bomb, a wall-sized photo of a mushroom cloud, a Minuteman missile launcher and other authentic reminders of the tense times when the country lived under the threat of nuclear war.

“It’s that feeling you’re in a fallout shelter,” Michael Sibbernsen, the museum’s interim curator, said Thursday, racing to finish the exhibit before Saturday’s unveiling.

The traveling exhibit, “Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow: Living with the Atomic Bomb,” examines the height of the atomic age — 1945-65.

Its dozens of displays — books on surviving the atomic bomb, instructions for building bomb shelters, Geiger counters, toy rocket-launchers — recall how Americans lived with, planned for and played with the threat.

But that wasn’t enough for the museum.

Staffers first saw the exhibit at a Kansas City library. Interesting, they thought, but a little formal.

They decided to make it “more visceral.”

Sibbernsen designed the exhibit to mirror an underground bomb shelter, with a tunnel-like entrance, exposed pipes, faux brick walls and the sound of sirens in the background. He eliminated an exit to give it a closed-in feeling.

“We wanted to provoke an emotional response, to elicit memories from some of our guests and to create new ones with our younger guests.”

So the museum drew from its own collections to round out the exhibit — vintage toilet paper and penicillin and canned water to stock the bomb shelter shelves, the actual red telephone the world hoped would never ring, next to the button the world hoped would never be pushed.