ARTS AND HUMANITIES: SRS Museum expands Aiken’s cultural fabric

August 24, 2018

Henry Dibble would be happy, I think, that the library named in his honor is still a place of learning. A local businessman and public benefactor – it is said he arranged for the planting of the live oaks on South Boundary – Dibble served on a board organized to construct the first purpose-built library in Aiken. After his death in 1921, that project went forward in his name. The Dibble Memorial Library opened in 1926; one year later, it was the focus of one of the most glamorous fundraising events in the history of our fair city, during which legendary performer and social commentator Will Rogers solicited contributions from a bevy of winter colonists and local residents.

Flash forward to 2014 when the SRS Heritage Foundation was looking for a home, and the now-empty Dibble Library was thought to offer the appropriate venue for telling the story of the Savannah River Site, which played a major role in America’s victory during the Cold War and continues to make a significant contribution in support of other national initiatives.

Recently I took a tour of the museum, which is currently open from noon to 4 p.m. the first and third Friday and Saturday of each month. Here’s what today’s visitor can expect.

The large rectangular room off the entrance serves three purposes. To the right are the remnants of the library’s old reading room, now serving as a tribute to the building’s origins but also as a repository of publications related to the establishment of the nuclear reservation in the early 1950s and its continuing evolution. To the left are the combination reception desk/gift shop and an SRS timeline, which takes up a full wall.

For members of the public who assume the role SRS has played in our national defense begins and ends with the production of materials used in nuclear weapons, including tritium and plutonium-239, this informative, attractively illustrated wall-sized panel expands the narrative to encompass the site’s key contributions to our country’s space program, modern environmental studies and various energy-related technologies.

Through additional panels, artifacts and video presentations, subsequent first-floor rooms provide greater detail regarding some of these topics. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the site’s role in the Apollo missions and its contribution to the success of the Voyager spacecrafts. Of equal interest to me were also vintage photographs, both print and digital, of the first employees at the site, including some of the nearly 40,000 workers who built the facilities.

Younger visitors may be drawn to the museum’s impressive three-dimensional exhibits. Suspended from the ceiling of the front room, for example, is a scale model of the U-2A spy plane – those of a certain age may remember the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers who was engaged in aerial reconnaissance of Soviet military facilities during the Cold War. In the second room beyond the entrance is a replication of a typical fallout shelter with supplies enough for a family of four to survive for two weeks. In an enclosed space that once housed a dumbwaiter to transport books between floors, the staff has cleverly created a “glove box” such as the kind used for the “safe” handling of radioactive materials. Visitors can take turns testing their skill.

According to Walt Joseph, a founding member of the SRS Heritage Foundation, big plans are afoot for the educational facility. In the near future, the Savannah River Ecology Lab will develop its own exhibition space with a focus on various wildlife studies conducted on site, and there will also be in the same room a display on the role of the U.S. Forest Service at SRS. Once construction of an elevator is complete, the second floor will also be available for further exhibits.

Two upcoming events should be of interest to the greater community. Oct. 20 is the date for Atoms in the Alley, an annual museum-focused fundraising event including music, science booths and a silent auction. On Nov. 1, in recognition of the site’s role in our nation’s space program, the American Chemical Society is expected to name SRS as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. To commemorate that milestone, the museum is hoping to have in place on its Laurens Street property David Cianni’s 15-foot-tall sculpture “Atoms in Space.” The dedication of this work of public art is a long-awaited cultural event in our community.

For more information on the museum or to make a donation in support of its goals, visit srsheritagemuseum.org or call 803-648-1437.

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