400 10th St. Hawthorne, Nevada
Driving south on Highway 95, you circle around Walker Lake in the shadow of the Wassuk Range. Like all desert lakes, the vista is unexpected and alarmingly beautiful. A few miles south, the view changes again to an undulation of storage bunkers before entering Hawthorne.
The Mineral County Museum is located across from a rest area on Hwy 95 and walking distance from the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum and the historic Hawthorne USO building. Housed inside what was once the Big T Market, its teal walls and orange carpets stage the museum as a time capsule. Painted on the walls are the names of museum donors. Having them directly on the walls fuses them with the history of the museum as a space. The people and organizations have been embedded into the physical history they are striving to protect; preservation of the preservers.
Throughout the museum is a celebration of objects, some of them notably distinct to the area and other blending into the historical imagery of the West. A treat for the viewer is the reference to the people behind these objects and their sense of belonging to this place. The value is in the narrative of the object and the object itself. Skis and hand-sewn quilts are reminders of how hard we’ve had to work for things. Hands are made to be in motion and these objects bear the marks of the people who both shaped and used them.
The exhibits in the museum are arranged in various manners, some behind glass and some left to manage the elements. Like the town itself, there is a tension between what’s accessible and what isn’t. Just as the “No Trespassing” signs mark seemingly open space, the museum’s lack of vitrines leave the tactile temptingly close. It’s left up to the visitor to respect the space and mind the social cues.
Hawthorne has a history wrought with booms and busts from mining surges to a missed railroad route to the establishment of the Naval Ammunition Depot. Each event seemed hinged on what the landscape did or didn’t have to offer. Like most accounts of western expansion, it was the availability of open, unfettered space that brought the Ammunition Depot. And in the vein of mining, the military has left a fingerprint on both the landscape and the culture of this town.
Through all of those changes, the military legacy of Hawthorne has withstood time and the town’s diminishing population. It’s not just what is left of a town, but the designated importance of those remainders. The patriotism and pride in service is easily felt. There are floats, flags and a sign on an old cash register reminding the bartender “take down flag at sundown”. The military and the ammunition depot is a common thread between families, neighbors and friends here; a thread that spans over 80 years. This common story has moved through WWII, the Korean War and the Iraq War. It’s a complex relationship (war, weapons, community) but what stands out in the museum is the declaration that “this is who we are and how we’ve built our livelihoods” and despite political or social opinions that feels like an honorable declaration.