Moving the Ichthyosaur

With that specimen and 100,000 others, it hasn’t been easy, but the Nevada State Museum is almost ready to make its transition to the Springs Preserve

David Millman is exasperated; there’s really no other word for it. The freight elevator is broken, the phones and e-mail are down, and the computers aren’t cooperating. Those are just this afternoon’s little challenges.

“I am in the middle of 10,000 different things,” Millman says from behind the desk in his office, head in hands. “I cannot keep up. I just can’t.”

Millman is the director of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. His task is to get the museum moved from Lorenzi Park to the Springs Preserve, and get it open by Oct. 28. It’s not simply a matter of boxing up about 100,000 artifacts at the old building and trucking them less than a mile to the new one. There’s a fabrication shop to fabricate, exhibits to build, a gift shop to stock, artifacts to store and a library to organize. The Springs Preserve building has been empty for two years awaiting funding for this big move, so some of its innards need tweaking. Its polished floor scratches easily, the lights don’t always work, etc. Then there are challenges unique to museum relocation. How do you move a 43-foot-long Ichthyosaur?

“Slowly,” Millman says.

You do not want his to-do list.

It may be hard to see from so deep in the trees, but the forest is going to be pretty damned impressive. Where the old facility at Lorenzi Park was cramped, dark and outdated, the Springs Preserve location is spacious, sunny and modern. At exactly twice the size of the old place, the new building features things many museums take for granted, like plentiful storage areas with cabinets that slide at the touch of a button on floor-mounted tracks, spacious meeting rooms, a gift shop bigger than a closet and a research library with state-of-the-art fire suppression equipment. Even partially empty and unfinished it dazzles. The first thing that catches your eye when you walk in the doors is an exquisitely detailed concrete-and-resin sculpture of a bristlecone pine tree, the oldest living thing on earth and the Nevada state tree, center stage in the building’s vaulted atrium. Beyond the sculpture is a long hallway of high stone walls capped by an arched ceiling painted in the light-blue tones of a desert sky, creating the sensation of an indoor canyon.

Millman finishes wrestling with a computerized time sheet, signs something, apologizes several times for the disarray and leads me on a busman’s-holiday tour of the place, keys to everything jangling in his pocket. For a guy with an advanced degree in history he’s way too familiar with the boiler room—“I’ve spent a lot of time down there waiting for contractors,” he says—but fumbles a bit with the lights to the permanent display, the one part of the museum that’s ready for business.

He flips a few switches and the room comes to life. Gone is the static, display-case-and-signage model prevalent at Lorenzi; the Springs Preserve is museum 2.0—interactive edutainment. There’s a touch screen to tell the story of continental drift, a 3-D movie about the desert at night, and three Pepper’s Ghosts jawin’ at visitors about the Comstock Lode. There’s a cave to explore, some square-set timbering to ogle (a mine-safety innovation that was invented in Nevada and sent around the world), and an entire section on Las Vegas, the crown jewel of which might just be an old-school, static, display case featuring an actual roll of toilet paper that belonged to Howard Hughes.

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The new museum is a statement. What it says is that Nevada is a fascinating place, and proud of its past. If you followed the latest legislative session you wouldn’t argue the first point, but might balk at the second.

As late as May the state budget included no money to open the $51.5 million museum. The state’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which was in charge of Nevada’s seven museums, had already endured budget cuts of 50 percent since 2008. Museum staff across the state were laid off, and those who remained had their hours cut to 32 per week.

“There was a point where we weren’t sure if we were ever going to open,” Millman says. “We were prepared to go out of existence.”

That was in January, when Gov. Brian Sandoval took office, got a good look at the budget and announced that four of the seven Nevada museums might have to go, and so might funding to open the museum at the Springs Preserve. Then came a May miracle: Sandoval found $330,000 in general-fund and tourism-fund revenues to get the museum open, and the Legislature agreed. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which owns the Springs Preserve, agreed to contribute $260,000 in staff and marketing help, plus 10 percent of the revenue from ticket sales to the preserve. (Though they are separate entities, one ticket will get you into both facilities.)

“It was important to the governor that the museum be made available to Nevadans as soon as possible, and we appreciate Springs Preserve and the Southern Nevada Water Authority stepping forward to assist,” says Mary-Sarah Kinner, Sandoval’s press secretary.

Suddenly the future of Nevada’s past looked brighter.

So there’s some evidence that the state finds its heritage worth showing off. But Nevada is still in a deep financial hole, and spending government funds on history has never been a priority for libertarian-leaning Nevadans. In an environment that recently saw the closure of the Department of Cultural Affairs, the museum’s survival and growth is a small miracle.

Millman’s been at the helm of a public institution in this state long enough to know that he’s going to be attacked on costs, so he stresses that $35 million of the cost to build the museum came not from direct appropriations but from bonds specifically approved by voters in the early 2000s.

And he believes it’s all worth it. “It’s a good thing for the community,” he says before scooting off to deal with his next problem. “We are here to preserve Nevada’s heritage. Did that sound too hokey? You know what I meant. Make it sound good.”