In January 1948, Phyllis Nicholls stood at the crossroads. The signpost before her pointed one way to ‘Progress’ the other to ‘Destruction’—it was time to choose. Such a weighty burden for a thirteen-year-old.
Phyllis was visiting the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’ in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. Around her, according to the advertising blurb, was ‘one of the most remarkable, vital and timely Exhibitions ever produced’, depicting ‘the whole amazing, challenging story of Atomic Energy’. 1 From alchemists to atom-smashers, the Atomic Age was displayed in miraculous detail. Phyllis, the Sun noted, was in ‘Atomic Wonderland’. 2
In the midst of this wonderland stood the crossroads signpost. The choice facing Phyllis was the choice confronting humankind. On one side of the exhibition a scale model of Hiroshima illustrated the destructive power of the atomic bomb. On the other side, displays highlighting the peaceful applications of atomic energy held out the promise of a cleaner, safer, and richer world. Which was it to be? The dawning of the Atomic Age had brought the world to a ‘turning point’, two paths stretched off into the future—it was time to choose.
For Phyllis the choice was easy. She had, the Sun report noted, already ‘covered the path of destruction’, and so she simply ‘turned with hope to the road to progress’. But what about the rest of us? We have thus far avoided an apocalyptic demise, but neither have we discovered our atomic Shangri-la. What happened? Did we choose? The crossroads that confronted Phyllis was but one of a continuing parade of critical turning points and world-changing crises that punctuate modern life. In the choices that they offer is an image of what is possible, what is necessary—an image of the future.
Phyllis’s dilemma provides us with a starting point from which we can begin to explore the way in which such choices are constructed. By examining the outlines of this ‘new’ age, we can ponder the fractures that separate past, present and future. By looking beyond the crossroads we can focus on the journey that carries us on. By following Phyllis around the Atomic Age exhibition, we can find our way into the more complex and challenging world of ‘Atomic Wonderland’.
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