Las Vegas Considers New Museum That Would Celebrate Las Vegas
April 23, 2021
by Doug Puppel
Southern Nevada has a state museum, a county museum, a children's museum, a natural history museum, a Mob Museum, and a Neon Museum.
What it doesn't have is a "Las Vegas" museum.
That could be changing. The city of Las Vegas is in the earliest stages of developing a museum that would chronicle the city's history.
Last month, Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Councilman Cedric Crear, and other members of the Las Vegas Centennial Commission heard a report on creating a museum to chronicle the community’s history.
Crear said the idea came to him as he was thinking about a building the city has that is full of documents, photographs and records from some of the earliest days of the city.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘We need a place to showcase Las Vegas,’” he said.
Crear said Las Vegas came from such humble beginnings to become a world-class travel destination and that history should be highlighted.
“Las Vegas is it, and we have such a great history, and we need to show it. I think people want to come out and see it,” he said.
Goodman also supports the idea, but she wants to make sure that it is executed well with a specific purpose.
“I would just like it to be top quality. That’s the main thing,” she said.
Mayor Goodman's husband, Oscar Goodman, lead the push for the Mob Museum years ago. She said it was a fight to get people to understand the vision of the museum, but Oscar Goodman was determined.
“If you’re going to do it, you have to have the experts run it, do the work to do the background research and then put your money in the right place,” she said, “The story we have to tell here is so unbelievably exciting and a moment of pride for the children as their growing up or coming to visit here.”
Goodman believes that Councilman Crear can make the city museum happen if he has the same passion for the project that her husband had for the Mob Museum.
Crear said he remembers a lot of skepticism about the Mob Museum when it was first getting started, but now, it is one of the top tourism spots.
“It went from the unknown, to saying, ‘Man, that’s pretty exciting!’” he said.
Jonathan Ullman is the president and CEO of the Mob Museum. He credits the efforts of Oscar Goodman and the city of Las Vegas in helping to get the museum off the ground 10 years ago.
His advice for a new city museum is to make sure it is an interesting place to visit.
"It is certainly important to have professional staff that have experience with the subject matter, that have good experience with how to create good exhibits, make it a compelling experience for people, to deliver on the vision," he said.
With that said, Ullman believes a compelling museum can be established with the subject matter of a Las Vegas Museum.
He doesn't feel like another museum would somehow take away from the Mob Museum.
"There's no shortage of topics that could be discussed," he said, "I would certainly, as someone in this field, argue that there's almost always room for more cultural institutions, more places for experiential learning, that's really important."
Uri Vaknin, chairman of the Neon Museum, agreed.
“It’s like restaurants. I want to be on the corner where there are three other restaurants, not where there are no restaurants,” he said.
He believes a new museum will bring more people to the Neon Museum. In addition, he believes there is more of an appetite for these kinds of cultural experiences in Las Vegas.
He pointed to the visitation numbers at "Seven Magic Mountains," the sculpture just off Interstate 15 near Jean, as an example. Vaknin said 1,000 people a day stop at the installation.
“If that one, singular piece of sculpture is getting 1,000 people going off the beaten path to go visit it, it says that people are yearning for these experiences,” he said.
In a normal year, 225,000 people visit the Neon Museum. During 2020, at the height of the pandemic, 179,000 people visited the museum, Vaknin said. He believes that shows the interest in cultural institutions.
Plus, Vaknin believes there are many only-in-Las Vegas stories to tell.
When the Neon Museum held a ceremony to turn on the refurbished Moulin Rouge sign, one of the original dancers from the club, which was the first integrated club in Las Vegas, was there. Vaknin said her stories of that time period were remarkable.
He said those stories of the city's founding and growth need to be showcased.
“We need to hear these stories and we need to preserve these stories because it really helps create this incredible sense of place that is Las Vegas.”
Vaknin said the Las Vegas brand is akin to Coca-Cola and Nike and that story can be told.
“There is no place in the world like Las Vegas. People want to hear our stories. People want to come to this place and learn about it,” he said.
For Ullman, the basis of any good museum is the storytelling.
"A common thread that runs through all of these institutions is storytelling," he said, "It's really about the quality of the stories. The significance, how compelling those stories and lessons are."
After choosing the story, Ullman said you decide the right mode to communicate those stories in a way that brings the visitor in.
Both Goodman and Crear told State of Nevada that a key goal of the museum project would be to highlight the contributions minority communities made to the evolution of the city.
“You cannot talk about the advancement of this city without talking about the advancement that Black people made to our great community,” Crear said.
Crear said you would be hard-pressed to find another area of the city that is as rich with history as the Historic Westside.
A possible cautionary tale, though, is the Nevada Museum of Art’s years-long and so far fruitless efforts to expand into Las Vegas. The Reno-based museum said the pandemic forced it to put expansion plans on hold and will revisit the subject in two years.
Vaknin doesn't believe the stalling of the art museum is a cautionary tale for the city museum.
He noted that art museums are much more difficult to establish than other types of museums. Most art museums in older cities like Detroit and Boston were started when a wealthy family gifted their collection of art to an institution or to the city.
Vaknin is hopeful that the art museum will eventually be set up in Las Vegas, but he believes it is better to start small and work towards a larger museum.
Guests: Carolyn Goodman, Las Vegas mayor; Cedric Crear, Las Vegas councilman, Ward 5; Jonathan Ullman, president and CEO, Mob Museum; Uri Vaknin, chairman, Neon Museum