The designers are playing a delicate game, harvesting the lurid while sowing the seeds of learning. It doesn’t always work. A barber’s chair from New York, where Albert Anastasia, head of the Gambino crime family, was killed in 1957, is billed as a prize piece. But it’s in good shape and lacks the visceral imprint of other pieces — which forces the viewer to consider why it matters, why it has appeal. The answer is quasi-mystical: Because someone died here. But that teaches us little if anything. It becomes an icon of violence, but evidence of nothing.
Mementos, personal effects and photographs donated by prominent mob families of Las Vegas are also more troubling than illuminating. Art museums have been laundering money for almost two centuries, converting new wealth into social prestige; here the same process is enacted almost as a crude parody.
Nevertheless, a solid lesson in the history of the mob takes form, in part, perhaps, because the building in which the museum is located demands it. The former post office and courthouse is one of the few substantial and architecturally interesting buildings from old Las Vegas. It is a neoclassical masonry structure surrounded by low-end casinos and desultory civic buildings, but it was also the site of one of the famous 1950-52 Kefauver hearings, a Senate investigation into the mob that brought knowledge of its extent and brutality into the living rooms of ordinary Americans. The courtroom in which the Nov. 15, 1950, Las Vegas hearing was held has been restored and serves both as a movie theater for visitors and an anchor to the exhibition. The movie is poorly done, difficult to decipher and an awkward mix of reenactment and genuine footage. But the authenticity of the space seems to have encouraged the museum to keep the scales slightly tipped toward seriousness in the rest of the exhibition.
The Kefauver hearings helped chase mob activity out of other cities in the nation, into the waiting arms of Las Vegas. The dusty desert town already had gambling and sin aplenty, but it soon became an “open city,” where mobsters of all ilks gathered without the bloody turf wars of previous years. The “skim” became standard practice, as men in suits with enormous pockets carried off the bounty of stupidity, spiriting away, tax-free, the money Americans were losing at the gambling tables. Celebrities lent their beauty and perverse credibility to the enterprise, and Las Vegas began to be what it is a today: the ultimate fabricated destination and consummate hustle.
All of this is covered. Sometimes, the nastier bits of local history are handled a bit like the rapid-fire, monotone warnings on TV commercials for medications — may cause lesions, vomiting and death — put forth so objectively and dutifully that the facts can’t quite compete with the allure of mob wealth and bravado.
But at least they try, and if viewers discipline their own reactions, it’s a reasonably educational experience. If nothing else, like so many things in Las Vegas, the house-of-mirrors surrealism of the subject and its presentation are part of the fun. Among the strange facts of the Mob Museum: The man who created the idea, championed it and now serves on its board is former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who once suggested that people who scrawl graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television. Goodman made his name as a prominent lawyer defending mobsters. Nobody is hiding this fact. Indeed, in Las Vegas, no one seems to think it is a bit strange.
The Mob Museum,
in Las Vegas is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults
and $12 for children. www.themobmuseum.org