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).
One might call this the fetish for indexicality, objects that have been literally imprinted by the subject matter to which they bear witness. Objects that carry the markings of actual violence or direct connection (through use or ownership) to crime have a strange frisson. In museums, photographs trump documents, and bullet-pocked bricks trump just about everything else.
One begins to wonder whether we are now living in the age of museum violence, an age in which museums devoted to various forms of coercive and destructive power (genocide, crime, militarism, mafia) are absorbing the limited reserves of attention span among audiences that might spend time indoors learning about complicated subjects. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction loses its allure. Old-fashioned history, without guns and gore, seems stale. So the creative cutting edge of museum design moves to subjects that are inherently and almost embarrassingly appealing to the idle spectator. Rome had its gladiator contests. America has museums of criminality.
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.
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