Mob, neon, nukes: Las Vegas museums capture unique history

Las Vegas News Bureau

Photographers and reporters gather near Frenchman Flat to observe the Priscilla nuclear test, June 24, 1957. During the 1950s, the spectacle of nuclear testing attracted curious members of the public from all over the country. Today, the nuclear testing era is documented and remembered at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

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An artist's rendering of the old La Concha Motel converted into the visitors center at the Neon Museum.

Richard N. Velotta

Richard N. Velotta

VEGAS INC Coverage

It seems 2012 could well be the Year of the Museum for Southern Nevada.

Some may scoff at the notion that facilities dedicated to neon signs, organized crime and the development of nuclear weapons are worthy of museum status. But when you consider that by definition, a museum is “a place or building where objects of historical, artistic or scientific interest are exhibited, preserved or studied,” there’s no question that all three qualify for their preservation of significant elements in our region’s history.

While the Neon Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement and the National Atomic Testing Museum will never be mistaken for the Louvre, all three will offer exhibits that explain how Southern Nevada was shaped into what it is.

All three will be home to significant happenings in 2012, including the official openings of the Neon Museum and what has become known as the Mob Museum.

Southern Nevada often is criticized for being culturally adrift. Some Las Vegas casino companies have tried with mixed results to fill the void by building art galleries as a part of their amenities. They didn’t seem to work because they felt out of place. Would you rather spend an afternoon touring the halls of the Getty in Southern California or see a handful of Picassos and Monets just down the hall from the dollar slots?

We’ve had a recent good run with museums, thanks in part to the state’s consolidation of departments in October to form the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, which is putting state museums and art under the stronger marketing capabilities of the Tourism Department.

Nevada magazine, long published by the Tourism Department, has a nice section in its January-February edition about Southern Nevada’s museum scene.

It not only profiles the Neon Museum, Mob Museum and National Atomic Testing Museum, but it also lists more than a dozen others, including the Lost City Museum in Overton, the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City, the Erotic Heritage Museum, the Hispanic Museum of Nevada and the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum at McCarran International Airport.

One of the first projects for the new Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs was to publicize the opening and dedication of the Nevada State Museum at Springs Preserve in November. It’s a beautiful facility, filled with displays dedicated to the geology and natural history of the state — a more conventional type of museum.

But on the unconventional side, there are big things ahead for the city.

The National Atomic Testing Museum got its “national” designation thanks to legislation shepherded by Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Joe Heck, and it’s now one of 36 with the special tie.

Affiliated with the Smithsonian, the museum — one of two in the United States dedicated to nuclear weaponry — explains the development of the program at the Nevada Test Site and the stories of the hundreds of men and women who worked there.

The museum, open since 2005, will unveil a new temporary exhibit on March 26 that’s bound to draw crowds — “Area 51: Myth or Reality.” With the fascination the public has for the mysterious secret base north of Las Vegas, I’m thinking many will find their way there.

Sometime in mid-2012, the Neon Museum is expected to open the doors of its visitors center — the old La Concha Motel lobby, which was moved from the Strip to the Neon Boneyard in 2006.

The boneyard, a collection of more than 150 neon signs built by a number of different manufacturers and now maintained by the museum staff, is part history, part art. Seeing the signs up close gives one a better appreciation that they’re works of art, worthy of preservation and an important piece of Las Vegas’ past.

Finally, coming to downtown Las Vegas next month is the controversial Mob Museum. While some view it as a glorification of the gorification brought to Las Vegas by criminals, there’s no question the mob played a significant role in the development of the city.

Opening Feb. 14 — yes, the 83rd anniversary of Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre — the museum and its organizers have promised to show the role of the mob, warts and all, and law enforcement’s efforts to drive it out of town.

Hopefully, the museum’s story will now drive tourists into town.

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  1. Now how about a Museum geared for Locals as well as International tourists. Like a Major Natural History Museum, Art Museum, Industrial Arts Museum, Planetarium, Zoo. You know - the type of attraction people like to see when they travel and the locals also support. As Gaming becomes available everywhere, taxes on Gaming in Las Vegas should be enough to Improve the City and give visitors as many reasons as possible to come, even if they never want to step a foot inside a Casino. Plus having attractive World Class Museums will help educate local Children and Adults.
    While I think a Neon and Mob Museum are Unique, they are just a small part of a much larger environment that needs to be built.