Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mob Museum

There seems to be an overload of museums. No, we’re not talking the Louvre, or MoMA, or even the family of Smithsonian museums we’ve got going on in our nation’s capital.

But now every city seems to have a tarted up idea parading about as a ‘museum.’

Every once in a while, this idea works. It does in DC with the Spy Museum, a caffeinated look at the role of spies over time, focusing particularly on the Cold War era. And again in DC, it works in the hyper-caffeinated Newseum (that’s for news museum, kids) where there is everything from stock footage and headlines from virtually every news worthy story of the past few generations, up to and including a solemn wall noting the death of reporters working in the field.

Now, in Las Vegas of all places, some enterprising sorts have put together the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. While this was until recently called just the National Museum of Organized Crime, with Law Enforcement reportedly added following some discussions with a former FBI agent brought in as a consultant, the museum will be known by the name it promotes, the Mob Museum.

And why not. Why not celebrate the role of organized crime in the city considered the home of bandits and swindlers for many years. Why not bring together years of archival photographs, long buried images and long forgotten names, as well as some familiar ones, and wrap them into a very modern and interactive series of spaces. Why not accept artifacts from the family of known and named criminals, and use them for display.

And why not, for character, drop this all in a renovated Federal Building, formerly housing both the Post Office, and the Federal Courthouse, just steps from the old strip, and the current fa├žade that is the Fremont Street Experience.

Well, that is what was done, and it shows. This space and this setting and this museum works. It works because you’re transported, literally, since you have to ascend the top floor of the museum to start the tour, back into an era when gangsters and molls were more obvious than the wannabes who populate our mass media today.

You learn that it wasn’t just Italian Americans from Sicily or Naples, but Jewish Americans from eastern Europe, who together co-opted many corners of domestic society to create their alternative universe. And that universe, the museum aptly notes, did not only take place in Las Vegas, and across Nevada. There was for many years a tranquil idyll in Havana for those who favored illegal forms of recreation. There were many business affairs that ended badly for some of the partners of these bandits. And there was involvement and engagement in virtually every city across the continent.

The museum goes so far as to include a mock up of an electric chair, in which visitors can sit and be photographed, as well as the wall from the Chicago warehouse made famous in the 1929 Valentine’s Day massacre. Along with thousands of photos, some familiar, most, refreshingly, not.

And in recognition of the role of police, investigators, and the courts in all of this, a former courthouse space is now a multimedia room where scenes from trials and depositions are played out, on a number of screens. Other spaces speak of the work done by prosecutors to bring gangsters and other criminals to justice. Take in this room, as it was the venue for the Las Vegas hearings of the Kefauver Committee, the U.S. Senate committee which in the very early ‘50’s looked into the tethers that organized crime had placed in society.

But we don’t go to a Mob Museum in Vegas to celebrate the heat, after all. The bad boys remain the star of this desert attraction, and whether you’re just looking for a place to get some shade, or truly seeking a historically informative experience in an unlikely place, the Mob Museum will certainly provide that opportunity.

And in a city with no formal art museum, a city in which a casino hotel houses what passes for an art museum, including tours for schoolchildren, the Mob Museum is a welcome addition to the chintz and ersatz faux that otherwise defines this hard pressed desert stop.

The Mob Museum can be found online at Admission is not cheap. $18 for adults. The hours are very good, opening at 10am, and staying open through 7pm weekdays and 8pm on weekends. For more information, contact them directly:

300 Stewart Avenue,

Las Vegas, Nevada, 89101