Las Vegas — The line between the experiential museum, with its high entertainment quotient and tech-heavy immersion in sound, video and gaming technology, and the theme park, with all of the above plus thrill rides, is an increasingly thin one. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, an early pioneer of the “you are there” approach, is clearly about education; the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, near the Quantico Marine Base, is more like Disneyland with artillery.
The new Mob Museum in Las Vegas, which opened Feb. 14, is a late-generation design that uses many of the same tools and techniques one finds at similar venues focused on subjects where popular culture and history are too intertwined to be unraveled. Think of the International Spy Museum or the Crime Museum (billed as “a must-see for CSI fans”), both in Washington and both conveniently located in a neighborhood near the Mall where the white marble of history blends into the neon lights of food, drink and fun.
Visitors to the new Las Vegas attraction, which sits in the slightly tatty old downtown, a short cab ride from the main gambling strip, begin by taking the elevator to the third floor of a decommissioned federal post office and courthouse. The designers make the best of the institutional architecture to craft a conceit: You are being processed through the criminal justice system. One mini-exhibit offers the visitor a chance to be photographed in a “lineup,” just as so many cons and perps in movies past have been paraded and scrutinized.
There’s also a chance to squeeze the trigger on a terrifically loud noise-making machine gun and pull the lever on an old-fashioned slot machine.
But the surprise turns out to be the relatively dense educational material woven into the 17,000 square feet of exhibition space. The museum’s design team includes key players from the creation of the Spy Museum, including creative director Dennis Barrie and designer Patrick Gallagher, but the new project feels better thought out and better contextualized. There is plenty of material that flirts with mob glamour, but it’s also clear that the exhibits aim at telling the larger history of the mob and its influence in Las Vegas, a tricky subject given the prominent role of organized crime in creating and sustaining America’s love affair with losing money.
“When we first started the project, this was going to be a Las Vegas-centered story,” Barrie says during a tour of the $42 million museum. But the role of the mob in Las Vegas can’t be disentangled from the larger role the mob played in controlling easily exploited industries (especially gambling, illegal alcohol and prostitution) throughout the country. So the story goes back and forth between the specific and the general, the local and the larger picture, in a way difficult to manage but essential to nuanced history telling.
The mob, we learn, emerges out of the immigrant communities that flocked to the cities of the East Coast more than a century ago. Prohibition gave it unprecedented opportunities for expansion; and by the 1920s, competing factions, and a new generation of young hoodlums restlessly chafing under old leadership, led to spectacular orgies of violence. The 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was among them, and the museum proudly displays a brick wall that was riddled with bullet holes during the shooting (it was disassembled and partially sold piecemeal before making its way into private hands and, ultimately, into the new museum).