Monday, August 20, 2012

The Wonderfully Weird Museums of Las Vegas

Las Vegas is not really known as a town for art lovers. Sure, Steve Wynn brought fine art to Las Vegas when he opened The Gallery at Bellagio before he sold the lavish resort to MGM, a move that drew as much derision as it drew praise (I couldn't find a link to the SNL sketch where Ben Stiller plays Wynn and announces the opening of the fine arts gallery by boasting "we got a butt load of Picassos!" but it's very funny. Trust me. But real life is funnier than sketch comedy anyway, as I can share a link to that amazing story where Wynn poked a hole in a real Picasso due to his poor eyesight.)

While a few of the galleries in Las Vegas resorts actually offer an opportunity to view some great works of art (despite the seemingly contradictory fact that they're in casinos on The Strip), you go to Paris for great art (and not the fake version of Paris in Las Vegas). When in Rome, do as the Romans do (and not the fake version of Rome in Las Vegas). The most interesting museums in the city are the ones that are just a bit weird and reflect the town's rich and extremely colorful history. And while I'm completely excited by a lot of the cool underground, independent art created by locals and exhibited in the many diverse and progressive galleries opening all over Downtown, that's not what I'm going to talk about in this post. What I'm going to talk about is the most colorful, unique, entertaining and just plain Las Vegas-y museums in and around the city (a list that sadly excludes the dearly departed and flamboyantly crazy Liberace Museum).

Though its run by large international corporations today, Las Vegas was built by the mob. And while Occupy Wall Street-minded types might argue that large companies are worse than organized crime, the fact is that the mafia did a lot more tangibly awful things, like whacking people with Tommy Guns and saying things like "Keep the Change, you filthy animal" (because the fake movie that Kevin watches in Home Alone is based on reality, I'm pretty sure). That said, mob history is also a lot more interesting (in a lurid and dark way) than histories a corporations mergers and quarterly earnings reports. Which is why there are now two museums dedicated to the history of the mob in Las Vegas while there will probably never be a Museum of Multinational Corporations and Conglomerates (MMCC).

The Mob Museum, located in an old courthouse where many colorful criminals were actually prosecuted, does an admirable job of confronting Sin City's very seedy past, with an incredibly in depth history of the organized criminals who ran the town and how they were ultimately taken down. The museum tells both sides of the story, from the point of view of the mobsters and the point of view of the cops who doggedly pursued them, with tons of interactive elements, artifacts from the era, crime scene photos, and somewhat creepy pieces like real weapons used by mafioso foot soldiers and the actual barber chair in which Murder, Inc. boss Albert Anastasia was assassinated. The Tropicana also hosts their own Mob Exhibit on The Strip, with a more interactive element that fits in perfectly as a Casino attraction. Both of these exhibits are worth visiting, especially for fans of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, The Godfather, and Casino.
Las Vegas is all about bright lights, and no light is brighter than the flash of an atom bomb. Sin City used to be the site of atomic bomb tests (okay, obviously not the city itself... if that was true, there would be a giant crater there instead of The Strip) which patrons of Atomic Liquors would watch as sipped strong cocktails. The Atomic Testing Museum, chartered by Congress and presented by The Smithsonian Institute, presents the history and controversy surrounding the creation of The A-Bomb through timelines, vintage films, photographs, and gadgets from the era. The museum takes you back in time with recreations of underground test facilities and dioramas of those eerie "nuclear families" made of All-American looking mannequins that were used in the tests, as well as interesting artifacts that bring the era to vivid life. This place is a must-see for any history buffs/ geeks looking to take a break from The Strip. (The Museum features a new Area 51 exhibit for an additional fee. I haven't seen it yet, and even though I love the idea of an exhibit covering the history of UFO sightings in America, the Yelp reviews have been less than kind.)

Even more than Los Angeles, Las Vegas is a town that sheds its identity quickly and without sentiment. Classic resorts where The Rat Pack partied and performed are mercilessly imploded to make way for the the latest slick multi-billion dollar resort that will become outdated within a few years as the city relentlessly pursues the latest and greatest trends (dramatic, right?). Luckily, the creators of The Neon Museum thought to preserve the colorful, garish, and sometimes seedy history of the great Las Vegas resorts of old in the form of their iconic neon signage. The nonprofit group that runs the museum has collected tons of the signs, which they describe as "Las Vegas' iconic art form," and gathered them in a 2 acre park. While some of the more famous signs are displayed on The Fremont Street Experience, if you want to see more of the 150 restored and donated signs that date from the 1930's- 90's, you'll have to make an appointment ahead of time. Also, be sure to check out the Neon Museum's visitor's center located in the restored lobby of The Paul Revere Williams designed La Concha.

This one is for the true geeks, but it's awesome. The Pinball Hall of Fame is not a solemn space dedicated to the Pinball wizards of the past... instead of a historical hall dedicated to the players, it's an exhibition of the greatest Pinball Machines of all time. The collection features hundreds of machines made between the 1950's- 90's as well as a few classic novelty arcade games. The museum places an emphasis on machines built between the 60's- 80's, an era known to Pinheads as the golden age of the game. Best of all, each and every machine is fully restored and playable. At rates of 25- 50 cents per game, it takes a lot longer to lose money there at any Casino in town.

1 comment:

  1. I went to a contemporary art fair in Shanghai recently, which was a real eye-opener. Chinese contemporary art has come leaps and bounds from the watery Zen landscapes to huge canvases of strange-looking beings. The prices being asked and paid were huge too.
    Oriental, if not Chinese, my print of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting,, bought some time ago from, is as lovely as ever.