Kathleen Barrie

The Mob Museum curator on how the project came together, striking gold in a Vegas garage and meeting a notorious crime family

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As a central part of the Mob Museum design team, Kathleen Barrie spent the last six years overseeing the development of research and content—essentially, the guts of the operation. Barrie is married to museum creative director Dennis Barrie, and she’s the head of Barrie Projects, her museum-curating firm in Cleveland.

Barrie, who helped with the design and development of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., started with the Mob Museum in 2006 and has traveled back and forth from her Cleveland home to Las Vegas since. It’s the latest chapter in Barrie’s three decades in the cultural-planning business—including a London display of Michael Jackson’s wardrobe—and, she says, it’s by far her favorite.

The museum is housed in the historic post office on Stewart Avenue, which also happens to be the old courthouse where the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held hearings in 1950. The doors open Feb. 14, the 83rd anniversary of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago.

How do you even begin to create content for a mob museum?

The beginning was like fudge-making. There is no exact science to this at all. What the city did was convene 30 to 40 experts from across Las Vegas to really give us an intense, in-depth look at the city. From former sheriffs and Metro and FBI agents to people working at casinos to showgirls to oral historians to families related to key figures to cultural writers. They came in big groups to talk to us. There was usually someone from law enforcement who looked so uncomfortable—they’re not used to talking about it because their job was to not ever talk about what they saw or to reveal methods. But for some people it was far enough in the past that a good story was still a good story.

Were you already fairly well-versed in mob history?

Well, I’m from Chicago, and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre has a long life in the public imagination, so I’d say so. But you always worry that what you know is the lore and not the real stuff. So it’s really fun to go back and fact-check what your orientation is. Lore is great, and people hate to have it disproven; they’d rather continue to believe it. But you can always go a little deeper and give people background on what the real truth is. And generally the truth of the matter is so much more interesting than the shortcut history that’s evolved.

How did you go about acquiring artifacts?

Quite honestly the best stuff has come to us. We put feelers out, and there’s been a fair amount of publicity. Then there were people who had something that they weren’t quite sure what they had, and weren’t quite sure if it was significant, [come] to us and say, “I don’t know if it’s anything,” and we’re like, “Oh my goodness, yes, we could use that.”

Like what?

We’d been trying very hard to buy one brick from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre wall. And there was a woman living in Las Vegas who had pretty much inherited the wall. Her great uncle had purchased it when they tore it down in Chicago, and she had it in her garage. I had been searching and searching for just a single brick—there was supposedly someone in British Columbia who may have one, but no one’s heard from him, on and on. And then—voila!—there it was, spread out on the garage floor in a basic suburban house. Brick by brick by brick, all tagged, in a perfect grid. We’re having great fun sorting out and reassembling it on the site.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

It was really to distill it down. We have to be able to give somebody enough info all the way through that they don’t feel overwhelmed by it, trying to keep these plot lines straight over many decades. That was the biggest challenge. We zeroed in on key figures … Johnny Roselli pops up everywhere, and Bob Maheu [who was Howard Hughes’ personal assistant] on the other side is one of the most interesting figures, so many characters.

It takes you right up to today, and it casts Las Vegas where it should be: in the middle of the national and international story. That was one of the most interesting developments for those of us not from Las Vegas, that, gee, all roads and runways do kind of lead here.

What were some of your favorite characters in doing the research?

We had so many great interviews. One is Joe Pistone, who went undercover as Donnie Brasco—that was really the first very long infiltration of a mob family, and we’ve interviewed him for one of the films in the museum. Also, there was a very well-respected agent from Las Vegas, Rick Bacon. This man was the master of disguise, master of aliases. He was involved in all these cases with Tony Spilotro and [the] Hole in the Wall Gang and other drug investigations and shady land investigations. I think this man has posed as about anything and everything under the sun. He’s in a film in the museum where he and Oscar Goodman, then the defense attorney, are just having it out, and Rick’s saying, “How could you represent these people?!” and Oscar’s saying, “It’s in the Constitution; you bet I’ll represent them!”

Did you ever imagine the mob would absorb six years of your career?

Not in a million years! My degree is in studio art and art history. But it’s been wonderful and so interesting.

I was home in Chicago a couple of years ago, and I was going to meet with some members of the Giancana family, and my mother was sitting at the kitchen table shaking her head, saying, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Then when I was getting ready to go, she finally said, “Do you think I could go?” [Laughs.] I couldn’t take her, I was working. But they turned out to be the nicest people.

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