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by Les Levidow and Bob Young

London's Science Museum — located by the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums — features a grandiose Nuclear Power Exhibition that glorifies the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR). Such advertising is all the more remarkable at a time of the major public inquiry on PWRs in Britain — Sizewell — and a virtual halt in PWR construction in the USA. How, then, did such an exhibition come about?

It's no secret that the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) subsidised most of the Exhibition's costs to the tune of 300,000. But it's not widely known how the AEA's funding bought control over the content. Disgruntled Museum staff have been reluctant to make public their complaints because of sanctions applied by the Museum management.

Fortunately for outsiders, the inside story can now be told. We learned about it somewhat unexpectedly, at a museum curators' conference where we'd been invited to comment on the Nuclear Power Exhibition from the view point of 'the consumer'. The curator of the Exhibition, who shared his concern and distress with his colleagues at the conference, was subsequently put under disciplinary proceedings by the Museum management. Our story of the whole affair will be presented as follows:

• Calling the Tune — Bob Young's account of how a professionals' conference catalysed revelations that the Science Museum management are determined to cover up.

• Who Is Subsidising Whom? — a summary of the talk by the Nuclear Power Exhibition curator, and of the conference discussion that it sparked off.

• What Does Sponsorship Buy? — Bob Young's talk on how sponsorship in general, and of museums in particular, buys the imprimatur of official culture for selected world-views and political purposes.

• Naturalising Nuclear Power — based on the illustrated talk by Les Levidow and Bob Young showing how the Nuclear Power Exhibition legitimates nuclear technology as progress.  


One day I was asked if I would care to speak at a conference on 'Sponsorship'. The invitation came from the Secretary of the Group for Scientific, Technological and Medical Collections, affiliated to the Museums Association. The topic struck me as timely in Thatcher's Britain because of the squeeze on public funding of culture, education and research. Everyone is being encouraged to try to carry on their activities with the help of 'enlightened' commercial enterprises. This approach is already well established in sports and in some parts of high culture. It is now being applied in the public sector. For example, drug companies sponsor medical exhibitions Even in television, guidelines about sponsorship are being rapidly relaxed I was at first taken aback by the invitation but soon realised that I was probably being invited because of articles that I had written on a previous exhibition — 'The Challenge of the Chip' — in Time Out and Computing. In those articles I had pointed out that the exhibition contained absolutely nothing about the social and political issues raised by microelectronics. Indeed, the man who had organised the exhibition had told me quite candidly that there was a plan for including such commentary but that it had been dropped. He said that the Department of Industry — specifically the Microprocessor Applications Project — made it a condition of their support that nothing be said about unemployment. He continued,

The Science Museum people felt that they couldn't deal with issues which were contentious and which in some cases could be political. They did plan an introductory section, which would have had statements from the union side and the management side and social interests and others, which would create a kind of montage of attitudes. But that was cut out, partly because we ran out of money and partly because one or two individual people there — not least the Director, Dame Margaret Weston — were a little bit concerned. So social comment is absent.

I surmised that someone had suggested inviting me because they were concerned about the whole topic of sponsorship and its effects on what gets shown and said in the resulting exhibitions. Indeed, I'd known people involved in setting up the parts of the Science Museum housing the Wellcome Trust's collection on medical history. They had told me hair-raising tales about the control and censorship involved in setting up that exhibition. They had all been very demoralised by the experience.

In accepting the invitation to speak at this conference, I tried to make it clear that I was likely to take a strong line on the Nuclear Power Exhibition. The Secretary assured me that her Group knew that. Although I had views on museums and sponsorship, I knew less about nuclear power, so I asked to share the invitation with Les Levidow, a member of the BSSRS Politics of Energy Group, which had published Nuclear Power — The Rigged Debate.

In discussing the invitation, Les and I decided to look carefully at the Exhibition, take colour slides to illustrate our arguments and do an article for our radical science publications. When we arrived at the Exhibition we were very struck by its blatant biases, omissions, and silences — all serving to portray nuclear power as a natural emanation from the laws of nuclear physics. The Exhibition was laid out such that the usual heroes (Einstein, Rutherford and other pioneers of nuclear physics) were juxtaposed with highly contentious matters in the nuclear power industry — yet in such a way that they seemed to be of a piece. Nuclear power was also made to seem very grand and beautiful: there was a striking piece of sculpture with mirrors and vast 'organ pipes' which dominated one end of the Exhibition and appeared on the advertising posters. In short nuclear power appeared as a great achievement of the human spirit of scientific discovery, a worthy part of the temple of progress. And the audience for this spectacle amounts to over three million visitors per year, about half of them schoolchildren.

Travelling to Birmingham on the train, we couldn't imagine the reception we were likely to get, since the Exhibition was obviously scandalous yet successfully wrapped up for display. Who would the audience be? As we got off the train, we were greeted in a very friendly way by someone who identified himself as the curator who had set up the Exhibition. This was bewildering to us, since he must have known that we were about to denounce the Exhibition in our talk. Not only did he know our work, but he seemed to think we were on the same side. Then who, we wondered, was the opposition? We remained in great anticipation as we walked to the conference venue, the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry, and sat through the brief business meeting.

There then followed two talks which confirmed our worst fears about sponsorship. A very smooth and charming man from the Directory of Social Change, Michael Norton, gave a talk on how to get sponsorship. He was clearly a person well-suited to get rich people to give money to worthy causes. I had assumed that sponsors were keen to get legitimacy from sponsoring culturally posh places. He stressed that many sponsors were, on the contrary, conferring status at least as much as they were getting it. His talk was basically a workshop: how to get it. Questions about compromises, problems, contradictions weren't in the foreground. Rather, the main point was that people should be business-like about what was being bought and sold.

The second speaker for the morning session was the man in charge of giving Sponsorship from a major oil company. He was entirely different from the first speaker, who had been elegant, soft-spoken, a man of culture, someone who knows how to be patronised. By contrast, our oil patron was a boor — loud, garish, vulgar (wide pink tie and very striped suit, as I recall it) —a showman whose audience was not keen to buy though knew they had to keep his good favour. He went on and on about sponsoring symphony orchestras and Covent Garden events, told unfunny jokes and kept referring to the first speaker by his first name, always getting it wrong. During the talk there were lots of winces, rolled eyes and embarrassed glances throughout the room: this is what one has to endure in order to get sponsorship.

The morning's speakers departed at the end of the morning discussion. In the lunch break, Les and I were taken to the pub by a group of young curators who soon told us that they shared our views about sponsorship. They told distressing tales about various situations at the Science Museum and other places, as well as about their own civil service status being endangered. We felt that much of the audience would be well-disposed to our critique but their approaches seemed to range from resenting the threat that sponsorship poses to (their version of) 'academic freedom', to a sense of scandal that cultural legitimacy was for sale. That is, they were concerned liberals, perhaps with some radical views, but hardly likely to be seeking a class analysis of the role of culture in hegemony: the organisation of consent without routine use of overt force and without revealing the true relations of power. We did have common ground, however, in criticising the way museums decontextualise objects from the social relations of their origins, from the class forces (political, economic, ideological) that constitute them.

These curators were thus as opposed to 'object-centred' museums as we are, though from different perspectives than ours. The two of us had been part of a study group developing a 'labour process' perspective on science technology, medicine and other forms of expertise (see Rad. Sci. J. 6/7, RSJ 11). Our approach to technology is well-illustrated by a passage from Marx in which he treats technology as a 'moving resolution of class forces':

It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working class revolt. We would mention, above all, the self-acting mule, because it opened up a new epoch in the automatic system (Capital, Vol. 1, p.563).

This approach strikes us as a model for seeing how the state of various forces bring into being particular forms of knowledge, social institutions, technologies.

It was from that background, with some degree of common ground, that we sat down after lunch to hear the talk on 'The Curator's Point of View' by Alan Morton, who had taken part in setting up the Nuclear Power Exhibition. It is important to what follows that the audience included a number of eminent science museum curators and in particular (as he knew but we learned only through the discussion) some of the most senior Keepers of the Science Museum itself — people only one rung below the Director. The Curator hadn't spoken long before I was so struck by his candour that I — openly — took out a tape recorder and turned it on. (No one objected and later we were asked for an extra copy of the tape.) His talk, our talks and the discussion are presented below.

At tea, after the afternoon session, all was amicable, including further discussions with the Science Museum Keepers, one of whom was keen for me to understand just how senior they were in the hierarchy. They emphasised that they disagreed with the Museum Director's decision to side with the AEA and agreed with Alan's views on these matters. They did have reservations about moving from 'object-centred' exhibitions and wondered if attempting to go further into the social origins and social embedding of objects could produce an unmanageable web of connections. I would have liked to pursue this question of what museums do and how they do it.

On the return journey to London, we discussed the problems of museum work, how the hierarchy operates, how careers are made and protected, and who were the likely candidates to succeed Dame Margaret Weston as Director of the Science Museum. At some point during the day (my memory places it on the return trip), Alan said he'd tried to include more than just one panel on the Canadian CANDU reactor — widely regarded as the world's safest — but was flatly forbidden to do so, presumably because it would put the PWR in a bad light.

Soon afterwards I received a letter which conveys the atmosphere of the meeting and its aftermath.

Dear Bob,

I would like to take the opportunity of thanking you and Les for your stimulating presentation at our Birmingham meeting on sponsorship. Everyone who has spoken to me since has commented that the whole thing really lifted off at that point, and what a shame it was we had to pack up and go home.

If you do have time, I would very much appreciate a copy of your tape. There is an overwhelming wish in the Group for the proceedings to be circulated, and I would like to include with the transcript the reference to your article in the Radical Science Journal when it is ready and where people could get it!

Many thanks again for your help with the meeting.

Jane Insley

Secretary, GSTMC

We sent the tape and eventually got back the transcript of our talks. Alan chose to re-write his talk from his original notes instead of from a transcript of the tape. He also offered to try to get us some copies of official photos being made with a tripod (for which official permission is required). Three months later, when we reminded him about sending us his talk, he said he was asking his seniors for permission to publish it in a professionals' internal newsletter. (Once it was to be published there, it would be easy for us to refer to it without causing difficulties for him.) Then we received a distressed phone call saying that not only was he unable to publish or send us his article, but also that he was being disciplined for having given the talk in the first place without getting prior permission. He had been called to see the Museum Director in a quite formal way to be told all this.

So the top civil servant — in this case as in 'The Challenge of the Chip Exhibition' — acts on behalf of the sponsors to prevent the presentation of social, political and ideological issues which in both cases are fundamental to the technologies being exhibited. Chips and nuclear power are replete with questions of military power, subordination of workers (offices, factories, coal miners), public debate and protest. Throughout this period the newspapers carried daily reports on the ongoing Sizewell Inquiry about a Pressurised Water Reactor for Britain — the very reactors which were treated in such a benign way in this Exhibition. Yet the most official place of culture on these matters — the nation's Science Museum (the equivalent of the USA's Smithsonian Institution) — is silent about the controversies. In preparing the Exhibition, such matters were filtered out. When they were discussed afterwards in a professional context, opening up the possibility of making them more widely known — even just to fellow professionals, much less to a wider audience — the Science Museum attempted to cover up the censorship and control themselves. Careers become endangered at the same time as the Exhibition portrays power as benign, part of the nature of things. And so it is.  


Alan Morton's talk showed how the Science Museum's manifold dependence on the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) influenced the content of the Nuclear Power Exhibition, whose script was controlled by the AEA. Although the AEA appeared to be subsidising the Exhibition, the Museum's deference to the AEA led him to ask, 'Who is subsidising whom?' For example, not only were no anti-nuclear critics consulted on the exhibits, but neither were even most of the commercial firms involved in the nuclear industry. That selectivity was a deliberate decision — partly to cut down the amount of discussion, and partly to exclude views other than those of the AEA.

Because the AEA was the main source of objects for the exhibits on nuclear power, the Museum's dependence limited the objects that it could get. For example, there are both public controversy and government research about a systematic defect in PWRs: ballooning of the fuel cladding. Some staff wanted to display a sample of ballooned cladding, just to show what it is. But the AEA didn't want that sort of thing to be put on show, so it wasn't.

The Museum staff had these problems partly because of the particular position that the AEA holds in the British nuclear industry. Obviously it had a lot to do with the development of nuclear power in Britain, such that there's no body of nuclear expertise which is truly independent of the AEA. This affected the Museum staff in a number of ways. For example when it came to the audio-visual shows and working demonstrations, it was difficult to get the appropriate models built without the AEA's cooperation. In the end they contributed a lot of the models and the audio-visual shows.

The most bitter disagreements with the AEA came over the wording of some of the exhibits, such as those dealing with the development of the first nuclear weapons. The staff were dealing with the AEA's Public Relations people, who of course wanted to project an up-to-date picture of the wonderful work being done by the AEA. Their very carefully scripted picture left out a lot of the historical details. That attitude goes right back to the beginnings of the Exhibition, illustrated by one particular throwaway remark: since nuclear power could have been (hypothetically) developed without the prior development of the atom bomb, therefore we could omit its military origin from the display. Obviously that wasn't a serious proposal on their part. But that protective attitude contrasts to the full access to the historical documents given by the AEA to Professor Margaret Gowing in the research for her official history of Britain's nuclear programme. There was a vetting procedure, but she said that she had no problems with it. Such a book is obviously aimed at a very small audience. The content matters far less there than in a museum exhibition likely to be seen by large numbers of people, so the AEA would be more sensitive about the museum.

So who was subsidising whom? It appeared that the Museum hadn't fully thought through the 'benefits' of the AEA's sponsorship. The Museum and AEA had a written agreement covering the details of funding, editorial control, and so on — on paper, probably an adequate agreement. But such an agreement is only as good as the people making it, and ultimately the Museum management sided with the AEA against the Museum staff (as was to be starkly revealed in the discussion following Alan's talk).

The staff felt vulnerable, out on a limb, for lack of full discussion within the Museum, input from outside the Museum or adequate facilities for them to prepare the displays. The staff found itself arguing with the AEA not simply over facts but over different views of reality. Alan illustrated this conflict by analogy to the oil company man's slide show in the morning session of the conference: the pictures of the sea were visually stunning and possibly useful in educational terms, but they're a world apart from telling the story of the oil multinationals' involvement in the Middle East. Their rhetoric about concern for the environment masks a whole lot of issues.

In the case of the Nuclear Power Exhibition, he said, the problem wasn't reducible to control by an outside body. The Museum's generally 'object centred' approach means reducing history to a series of objects; history becomes a series of available objects representing 'progress'. That approach has many consequences. If there are no objects available, then there is no history. For example, the Museum couldn't lay its hands on the one surviving bit of the first atomic bomb because the US government considers it a secret item and thus won't allow it out of the country.

Another consequence is that the social relations of the objects are relegated to the sidelines. Of course many famous inventors and designers are depicted in the nuclear physics section. Yet in the nuclear power section, there are no people appearing in the photographs or models of nuclear reactors. Lastly, an 'object-centred' approach omits considerations of economics, safety, etc. that must have played a part in the development of the technological objects.

While the discussion following the afternoon talks touched on many related themes, most sensational were the further revelations on how the AEA's proposed wording had ultimately prevailed. Initially the Museum staff appeared to prevail insofar as preventing the AEA from writing the first draft of the script. Yet even at that stage the staff censored itself, internalised the norms of traditional museum display by limiting the script to a technical, matter-of-fact commentary upon objects readily available — while omitting, for example, nuclear weapons proliferation.

As if those self-imposed silences weren't bad enough, the AEA's sponsorship served to push the wording even further in the direction it favoured. At first the staff, receiving critical comments from nine different senior figures in the nuclear industry, was able to play off one against the other. The AEA got wise to this and proposed a single set of alternative wordings. Then the AEA and Museum staff managed to resolve their differences over the nuclear physics section, but eight unresolvable points emerged over the nuclear power section and over the atom bomb aspects of the nuclear physics section.

According to the pre-arranged agreement, any outstanding differences were supposed to go to arbitration before an appeals committee consisting of Dame Margaret Weston, Director of the Science Museum; Arnold Allen on the AEA; and Sir Brian Flowers of the AEA but also of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum. Instead the differences were taken up by an entirely different group: Mr. Chadwick, a senior figure at the AEA; Mr. Vey, who had been handling the Exhibition for the AEA on a day-to-day basis; Dr. Derek A. Robinson, Keeper of the Department of Museum Services; and Dr. Thomas, Alan Morton's immediate superior at the Science Museum.

Although Alan knew about their meeting, he wasn't invited to attend it except to be asked about a technical point. Afterwards he was told the decision taken by Dame Margaret Weston: namely, to agree to all the changes proposed by the AEA. She did tell the AEA that her decision was not supported by her junior staff, but she 'was not prepared to take the issue to the point of no return', as Dr. Robinson put it at the conference.

This resolution occurred one month before the Nuclear Power Exhibition was to open, at the stage when the invitations were ready to be mailed out. Not until Weston's capitulation were the invitations actually sent out because the AEA had asked the Museum to postpone the mailout in case the AEA decided to leave their Chief Executive's name off the invitations. At that time the Museum seemed eager to gain prestige from the AEA's sponsorship, but in retrospect the staff came to see the relationship the other way around. 'The Science Museum needs less of the lending of prestige than others,' as Dr. Robinson said at our conference.

The other points in the discussion centred on the wider cultural role of science museums. Dr. Robert Anderson pointed out the ironies in the relatively sparse commentaries published on them. Comparing museums in tourist terms alone, the Blue Guide to London's museums devotes 20 pages to the Wallace Collection but only 3 1/2 pages to the Science Museum, even though the former attracts only 150,000 people per year as compared to 3 1/2 million people for the Science Museum. In more critical terms, the most obscure art exhibition is almost guaranteed media cover as a matter of course, yet there is a 'deafening silence from all shades of opinion' about science museum exhibitions, even about controversial ones. For example, Bob Young's article was the only review of 'The Challenge of the Chip' exhibition while the Nuclear Power Exhibition had received no reviews at all.

In the discussion it was suggested that art exhibitions get relatively more media attention because there is a large reading market for art and a large spending market for art objects. By contrast, the importance of science exhibitions lies more generally in sustaining cultural legitimacy, especially among schoolchildren and tourists. Yet, despite the political importance of science exhibitions, journalists in general are less likely to feel they know as much about science as about art, while science journalists are likely to defer to the expertise displayed in science exhibitions.

How can museum managements be prevented from hiding the politics — the social relations — of the objects they display? In the discussion someone proposed a formal code of practice for museums when dealing with sponsors, but the experience of the Science Museum's formal agreement with the AEA makes a mockery of any such code. And the AEA's control produced simply a more extreme version of normal self-censorship by museum curators. Cultural and political forces inevitably influence not only technological development but museums' portrayal of it — through self-censorship, internal power relations in the museum, the power that comes with patronage or (as in this case) through all three at once. How, then, can opposition forces most effectively challenge a 'professionalism' that serves the ruling forces of this society? A first step would be for more people to understand generally the importance of museums' legitimacy and specifically what' s been going on in them (as this article had revealed).  


I have nothing but sympathy for Alan's story. With respect to most of the criticisms we were planning to make of him, he turns out to be the victim rather than the perpetrator. But we all have to face the reality of the customer-contract relationship. The question is: how are we going to live with it? Or, as was said in the film Shampoo, 'When are you going to learn to nickel and dime?'

Now I suppose I am here because a friend of mine told me about 'The Challenge of the Chip' exhibition at the Science Museum, saying it was such a scandal that I should write something about it. I arranged with Computing and Time Out magazines to let me do just that. Although I never got any comments from any readers, I did hear that my articles might have done some good inside the Science Museum.

The 'Chip' exhibition was done only because the chip has the social implications that it has. Yet when it came time to express those social implications — technological unemployment, pacing, surveillance, control, all the sorts of things the newspapers were full of — the Department of Industry said they would withdraw their support if that were done. Dame Margaret Weston absolutely refused to allow even a little pillar (like the ones for messages at airports) with every imaginable view set higgledy-piggledy on the pillar; that proposal was vetoed. And the organiser was quite candid about it, being in roughly the same position as Alan, in that his heart was in the right place but he was simply prevented...

I don't know much about nuclear power but I do know quite a lot about patronage. Patronage inescapably privileges certain ways of seeing reality — people don't give away money for no good reason. We have just made a film for Channel 4 about this very question. We asked an eminent feminist historian of science, Donna Haraway, how she wanted to make her case about how science operates. She said, 'I want to go to the New York Natural History Museum.' In the film she starts outside the Museum and says, 'The first thing I want you to do is look at this facade. It looks like a bank.' Then she takes us inside to the entrance space that looks like a cathedral, and then into the Hall of African Mammals, which she experiences as a side altar. She uses a lot of other metaphors of that kind to convey that the Museum was purveying something deliberately designed to elicit awe and to induce deference — to convey that this is official knowledge. For the museum is this culture's official view of itself. (I include here science as culture, because it's being consumed as part of a set of values.)  

Then she proceeds to analyse the dioramas in the amazing Hall of African Mammals She asks, 'Why are the groups this size? Why are they all like families? Why are they set in this way? Why don't they show us the safaris, the patronage (the people who paid for the safaris)? Why don't they show us the stuffing, the taxidermy? Why don't they tell us about the arguments that went on about how to set it up?' In other words, the animal groups are presented as if they are Nature, unmediated, and grandly realistic, because they're in dioramas.

Then she goes from the Museum to a zoo and from there to a monkey colony. The most famous monkey colony in the world is on an island off Puerto Rico where all the monkeys are brought from India and all the palm trees were brought from elsewhere. The animals never feed themselves; they are fed every day in an enclosure. The monkey colony is a construct, just like the museums and the zoo, yet presented as natural.

If we believe that museums really construct their reality, then the question is: 'Who gets to do the blueprint?' In my most paranoid 'conspiracy theory' fantasies, I never imagined that the Science Museum's script would be provided by the Atomic Energy Authority. I thought it would be the curators themselves (apart from certain consultations), yet clearly it wasn't. So the curator is a custodian of official culture, of historical residues that it's deemed all right to show to schoolchildren and the very broad public. (That's why the recent row about 'Marxist influence' at the Natural History Museum was such a scandal, and why it could be chimed that Marxist curators were trying to purvey 'ideology' — as if the status quo wasn't the most ideological view of reality in town.)

So we always have sponsorship on certain terms. While I was head of a Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Cambridge University, it never occurred to me to do any research on the drug industry — it simply never crossed my mind. That is, the self-censorship of the patronised is at least as powerful a determinant as any prudence that we might exercise. You just find yourself not asking certain questions, not even knowing that you haven't asked them, and not asserting certain points of view.

What we give to sponsors is legitimacy. We convey that they are on a par with museums' official status in our culture. We convey that it is appropriate for curators and sponsors to be associated in this endeavour, so that when you think of one, you will think of the other. When you think of the official culture of the Natural Science Museum, you think of nuclear power and the Pressurised Water Reactor — not as a scandal, but as part of the official definition of progress.  

In the companies' annual reports, they call this sort of thing 'goodwill'. It's an accounting term, a bookkeeping term. It's part of the saleable assets. But if they are paying for it, then it has to be good will. Therefore it's quite important what gets said.

I have a friend who did a very good television programme for Canadian television. When he sought sponsorship from IBM, a company rep saw the whole film, whose overall tone of 'gee whiz and onward and upward' was put in just a little doubt at the end. It was really only a tailpiece to the film Yet IBM said: sorry, if you leave that in, then we won't sponsor the film The studio people wouldn't take out the tailpiece because it was the only sentence of its kind in the whole programme. So the IBM people said no — just as simple as that.

When I say that sponsorship buys legitimacy, you all know this, but it's worth reminding ourselves how many millions of people go through our museums (about 3.5 million per year at the Science Museum). They go through museums as people who have been told that this is part of the official curriculum or as tourists seeing this society's chosen representation of itself. Until television came along with its Bronowskis and Lord Clarkes and Attenboroughs, museums were the main place where people consumed official scientific and technological culture in that sense...

As a fellow producer of things for public consumption (I've been making television programmes for three years), I want to ask: why is it that we end up in these compromise positions, in these diplomatic and deferential roles? And let's not assume, by the way, that it's only when we're sponsored that we mount exhibits which beg questions.

Next I think we need to understand the text of the museum itself. We need to learn how to decode our own exhibits. For example, the nuclear power exhibition juxtaposes the history of atomic physics, some of the greatest names in the history of science, with the nuclear power industry. Thus the Exhibition confers quick legitimacy on that industry, as embodying Nature in its applied form. The mere juxtaposition of the PWR with famous physicists (Einstein, Maxwell, Fermi and Millikan) confers legitimacy on nuclear power as part of 'progress' — exquisitely desocialised, apolitical progress.

We could well ask: What on earth is nuclear power doing in a museum in the first place? We could make the point more startling by reminding ourselves that our museums contain no representations of Cruise missiles as celebrations of our technical achievement, even thought that missile is undoubtedly a technical achievement. Solar power and other renewable energy sources could solve all our energy problems, yet those aren't juxtaposed with the Nuclear Power Exhibition. Why only the history of nuclear physics? Why doesn't it depict the alternatives?

So the Exhibition lends legitimacy to some forms of energy production while remaining silent about others. Clearly we know why. After all, who gave the money? And that is what usually happens: we start off in a collusive relationship where certain things are on the agenda and certain other things aren't. Once again, juxtaposing the PWR (pressurised water reactor) next to famous atomic physicists makes that technology seem an emanation of Nature's laws of atomic physics, as if Nature plus disinterested research gave us this technology in some way.

In the Exhibition we see mementos of the people who made the bomb, but we don't see any burnt flesh; we don't see Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we see the bombs, which are rather quaint and called 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy'. It doesn't say anywhere that, if the bomb was going to be a success, the code word was 'It's a boy', which I think half the population might have something to say about. The whole tone of the text is reassuring; our doubts are quietened before they arise.

Picking up on what Alan Morton said about 'object-centred history', it seems to me the kind of artefacts we have in museums are nodal points in history. As history is a moving resolution of forces, we should see each of these objects articulated with the strands of all the social forces, economic decisions and cultural values that led it to be a node of history, an object of some significance — whether it be the vacuum cleaner, the lamp, spectacles or tape recorders. But instead museums give us 'objectivity'. Again and again objectivity is represented as something that needn't speak about the omissions and commissions, but need only ask 'Is it true or not?' Yet it can be true and still lie by virtue of what else it doesn't tell you.

Finally, don't we need a code of practice about sponsorship? Television has a thick book about what you should do when you have anything to do with a commercial organisation. One of the rules is: never show the script to the sponsor. It is forbidden to show the script to anyone who has put money into any part of a television programme. It's certainly forbidden for the sponsor to have a hand in its drafting. It's simply against the law. The difference between British television (for all its faults) and American television is that in Britain the sponsor doesn't see the script. In America the sponsor can dictate the script. Result: schlock.  

NATURALISING NUCLEAR POWER by Les Levidow and Bob Young 

LL: For our critique of the Nuclear Power Exhibition, we'll do a double act, using slides to illustrate some of the points already made by Bob and then going into more detail about the portrayal of nuclear physics, nuclear power and so on. The Exhibition does us the favour of listing its main sponsors, which consist of well-known neutral observers, so we needn't worry about any bias:

This gallery has been made possible by the generous support and help of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The Science Museum would also like to thank the following for their important contributions:

British Nuclear Fuels, Limited Central Electricity Generating Board National Nuclear Corporation, Limited

The same panel also acknowledges help received from Argonne National Laboratory, CERN, Imperial College, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, South of Scotland Electricity Board, URENCO Ltd., Wellcome Foundation, Westinghouse Nuclear International, Amersham International, Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, GEC Energy Systems Ltd. etc. — but of course no groups who publicly criticise nuclear power.  

In the Nuclear Physics section we see a list of great discoveries by great scientists. As Bob has already said, what is most important is that this section on nuclear physics is juxtaposed with the sections on nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It fails even to hint at any sort of political reasons for the development of nuclear power and so gives the impression that such an application of nuclear physics is the most suitable way to appropriate nature for producing energy. This is the only voice we hear; the exhibit remains silent about other ways to appropriate nature — notably, renewable energy sources.  

The Bomb

Then we go on to a collection of quasi-religious relics from the beginning of the nuclear age, especially the famous Chicago pile and the scientists who celebrated that achievement. We also see some cute souvenirs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the only mention of damage is the number of people who died at that time — no mention or pictures of the ongoing toll of deaths and birth defects.

BY: Nor does it say that there has been a historical controversy about why the USA dropped the atom bomb there.

LL: This exhibit even precludes such a question being asked. It says, 'The two atomic bombs brought the Second World War to an abrupt end.' OK technically speaking, but it implies that the main purpose of using nuclear weapons there was to save soldiers' lives. Some historians would argue that the main purpose was not just to end the war a bit sooner but also to prevent the Soviet Union from helping to end Pacific War...

BY: ...and thereby to deny that country any claims for a greater 'sphere of influence' in that part of the world.

LL: Those nuclear attacks can also been seen, in a longer-term sense, as nuclear blackmail, a warning to the Soviet Union to hold back in other parts of the world.

BY: The exhibit omits this version of history, so no one would know that there's a controversy. (See for example Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy, Secker & Warburg, 1966.)

LL: In another exhibit we see the 'bomb heroes', where there's little mention that any of these people raised doubts about the bomb, much less that Oppenheimer (among others) was persecuted...

BY: ...or that Teller was shunned by many scientists for the rest of his life after he proposed the H-bomb and colluded with the persecution of Oppenheimer. 

'Atoms For Peace'

In the entire exhibition, the exhibit on the Atomic Scientists Association is the only prominent one that acknowledges that any scientists (or anyone, for that matter) criticised nuclear weapons. In this case, it's a group of scientists promoting 'the peaceful atom' just after World War II — 'only 15 years after the discovery of the neutron', we are told. Yet there is no mention of any mass movements against nuclear weapons — such as CND in the 1960s or 1980s — nor any mention of anyone opposing nuclear power. Why don't we see any 'Nuclear Power — No Thanks!' badges?

Next we move on to nuclear power in Britain. One panel glorifies the Calder Hall reactor as the first supposedly peaceful application of nuclear engineering in Britain. This portrayal perpetuates the myth of the 'peaceful atom' by ignoring the fact that Calder Hall's main purpose was to generate plutonium for Britain's first atom bombs. The electricity was merely a by-product, but we don't learn that here — we have only 'scientific facts'.

Next we learn about the origins of nuclear power in general. Again we have the 'Atoms for Peace' myth about nuclear energy programmes supposedly designed to meet the energy needs of the people. In reality, plutonium production and nuclear export have always been central to nuclear power programmes. (GEC has always been so eager for Britain to adopt the Pressurised Water Reactor because of export possibilities.) And more recently, the military intentions of the purchaser countries have become central to the whole international export market in nuclear technology.

BY: If the BBC can tell us this, in a 'Horizon' programme, then why can't the Science Museum? Television documentaries about these matters have had three million viewers on average. The difference in political approach is about who paid for them, who vetted the script.

LL: On all these crucial issues, the exhibition pleads ignorance: International issues such as the possible diversion of nuclear materials from civil to military purposes are the concern of the IAEA of the United Nations. Other international political issues are the supply of uranium and other fissile materials and the transport and long-term disposal of nuclear waste. These matters have not been touched on here. I think you'll agree this is an understatement.

Whose Power?

Next, a revealing quotation: 'The development of power reactors has continued because they reduce the need to use coal and oil to produce electricity.' This is the first hint that there is something at stake beyond producing energy as such, but the hint becomes reduced to a purely technical matter — replacing one energy source with another. Why bother? As its well-publicised leaked minutes revealed, the Thatcher government has been hoping that 'a nuclear programme would have the advantage of removing a substantial portion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers' (Ministerial Sub-Committee on Economic Strategy, 23 October 1979). Similar hopes were expressed as long ago as the 1950s, but the exhibition tells us nothing of this — only 'scientific facts'.

Next, 'Energy — United Kingdom'. This is a chart of the energy sources (input column on the left) and energy uses (output column on the right). The chart gives the impression that nuclear power forms a small but substantial net energy input into Britain's energy system. What we don't learn is how much more energy Britain's nuclear programme has generated than the energy required to produce it. In fact, current estimates don't expect the proposed PWR programme to produce any net surplus of energy until at least the turn of the century. But we don't learn that here. Of course, if we did learn that, then we might be led to ask: Why does the state decide to convert one form of energy to another form of energy, thus causing a net loss of energy? Could it have something to do with making profits or controlling the workforce? What does this mean for nuclear workers?  

In that vein, it's worth repeating Alan's earlier point about how the models of nuclear power technology portrayed in this exhibition leave out the people, such that you wouldn't even think to ask how nuclear power workers experience this technology. I would go even further by suggesting that this omission of human beings conveys an entire mentality of what nuclear power is about — a mentality embodied in the engineering design. For example, here's a quotation from the director of the nuclear safeguard programme at Los Alamos: 'In atomic institutions we must leave as much as possible to non-human colleagues — in other words, to apparatus. Not only are they more reliable, they are also cheaper.' Although the exhibition doesn't present such views explicitly in words, it certainly embodies the ideas visually, by omission of the nuclear workers.  

Pressurised Water Reactors

Next, a few exhibits on PWRs. In the first of these, we see the PWR's military origins in nuclear submarines described in a simple and benign way. In reality the PWR's commercial success was due to US government subsidies, not to any superior technical capability for public electricity generation. As one insider has described the PWR's transition from military to civil purposes, 'We scaled up the Nautilus thinking we would scale up the profits' (quoted in the 'Nova' television programme, Sixty Minutes to Meltdown). But in this exhibition we learn only scientific facts.

The second exhibit mentions the PWR proposed for Sizewell without the slightest hint of what the public controversy might be about. The exhibit effectively reduces the whole question to technical matters because it's filled up with details about how a PWR supposedly works, without giving much idea of how it might go wrong and has gone wrong many times in the USA and elsewhere.

The last exhibit, our favourite, is the one we call the Three Mile Island Whitewash. This one is so wonderfully reassuring that it's worth quoting:

To cope with a possible loss of coolant accident, a PWR has an emergency core cooling system... This design has three separate subsystems: 1, 2, 3... The chances of a loss of coolant accident are very low...

Yet we are not told that such an accident has happened many times. The only one acknowledged by the exhibit is the Three Mile Island accident, which it reassuringly describes as ’the only one which did suffer from a loss [of radioactivity] to the atmosphere'. We are also reassured that this was 'a different design to the one shown here', proposed for Sizewell. So, without actually claiming that such an accident couldn't happen at Sizewell, the exhibit implies that it won't — because of superior British engineering, perhaps?

Even at the TMI accident, the exhibit claims that 'The multiple safety barriers built into the plant ensured that the public was not exposed to significant amounts of radiation.’ That claim ignores the adverse health effects suffered by the entire local population in a variety of symptoms such as headaches rashes, irritability and even an increased incidence of leukaemia and birth defects (as documented in the American film, We are the Guinea Pigs, and elsewhere). Who decides what amounts of radioactivity count as 'significant'? Who assesses the distress caused by the Three Mile Island accident?

BY: Since the TMI accident, not a single PWR has been ordered in the USA and many orders have been cancelled.

LL: But we don't learn that here, even though it is a 'scientific fact' of sorts. Furthermore, since the TMI accident (and before it), even some insiders in the nuclear industry have been arguing that the PWR's design makes such accidents inevitable. Yet this exhibit tells us, *.

Much has been learned from this accident about the design of emergency cooling arrangements and the control systems for these reactors. A large number of factors have to be taken into account when designing a nuclear power plant and its emergency cooling system.

So don't worry, we're all in good hands — just leave it to the experts to work out by trial-and-error. 

Radiation Exposure

'Everyone is exposed to radiation all the time', we are told here. Next we see a chart showing exposure to radiation from various sources, most of them apparently natural sources but also a few human-made ones. Juxtaposing them this way has the effect of naturalising all the human-made sources, minimising them as quantitatively small as compared to the natural ones.

BY: Putting them on the same scale implies that we could or should do no more to reduce the human-made sources than the 'natural' ones.

LL: Even the 'average exposure' from human-made sources ignores the greater concentration of exposure around nuclear plants and naturalises the significant amounts of radioactivity routinely emitted or shipped off from nuclear plants. For example, the Irish Sea is the most radioactive body of water in the world because of dumping from Windscale. Do the statistics in this exhibit count that continuous, permanent exposure?

The exhibition goes beyond subtle deception, to the point of at least white lies, where it claims that 'No member of the public has been killed by a reactor accident.' To name but one of many fatal accidents: in 1961 at a military reactor in Idaho, USA, two workers were killed instantly in an accident whose gory details I will spare you. More recently, families of deceased nuclear workers in Britain have begun to win out-of-court settlements for damages.

And as for 'members of the public', narrowly speaking, how many radiation induced cancer deaths get hidden within the general cancer statistics? At least 13 people have died that way from radiation exposure received during the 1957 Windscale accident, according to claims made by the Political Ecology Research Group and accepted by the National Radiological Protection Board. Also PERG has estimated at least 30 more deaths from routine radioactivity dumping there, especially from consumption of radioactive fish. And all those figures are based on conservative predictions of damage inflicted per unit radiation exposure, so the real figures may be many times higher. From this exhibition we wouldn't even know that such a category of deaths existed. We are blandly reassured, Radiation levels in the environment near nuclear plants are checked regularly and published annually. They show that the radiation dose to the public is negligible.  

Nuclear Aesthetics

BY: Standing back from the details of the exhibition, and looking at its images, let's consider its dominant object: the apparatus on the big publicity poster, which in its way is very beautiful. In the exhibition there are pretty bits of apparatus and mirrors on the floor. What it does is to domesticate nuclear power, to say visually, 'It's all right, you can cosy up to one of these things, they're really quite pretty, like organ pipes.' People can easily get dwarfed by it because it's such an aesthetically pleasing piece of sculpture. It makes one forget about the risks and geopolitical issues involved. When you experience the exhibition, nuclear technology gets aestheticised.

LL: We want to conclude by pointing out that the sponsors of this exhibition know very well what they are buying. They are buying legitimacy, the imprimatur of official culture. We hope that everyone, not just museum curators, begins to ask the question of what the sponsors are buying and what the museum curators are selling ...out.

8698 words

Reprinted from Radical Science Collective, eds., No Clear Reason: Nuclear Power Politics (Radical Science No. 14), pp. 53-79, 1984.

Copyright: The Authors

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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