Cracking the Code of Cultural Cred

How the Mob Museum managed to be both smart and popular


“Originally, I had some reservations about this place,” former Nevada Governor Richard Bryan said one evening in April, sharing a stage with two other former governors, Bob Miller and Bob List, for a roundtable discussion at the Museum of Law Enforcement and Organized Crime, a.k.a. the Mob Museum.

“The mob definitely had an important presence in Las Vegas, and a huge impact on the history of our state,” Bryan explained, “but I didn’t want to see that glorified.”

Neither did I. And yet, a year after the museum opened, there I sat, along with Bryan and a mass of other people, some undoubtedly former skeptics like me. The place was standing-room-only, packed with distinguished folks I didn’t recall seeing Downtown before, despite spending most of my leisure time in the area. I managed to get a seat, wedged between a middle-aged man from Green Valley and a retired couple from Anthem.

It wasn’t my first event at the Mob Museum, either, just the latest of several lectures, panel discussions and parties I had enjoyed there.

That’s when it hit me: This museum has cracked the event-programming code, persuading crowds from the full demographic spectrum and far corners of the Las Vegas Valley to forego their sitcoms and social clubs for an evening, drive Downtown and sit on hardwood benches for an hour listening to people talk about history—an accomplishment that, in the long run, is worth a hundred Travel + Leisure endorsements.

How did the Mob Museum do it? As a sort of well-planned accident.

Consider the first event I attended—also the first installment in what Jonathan Ullman, the museum’s executive director, dubs its “national speaker series.” It featured Joaquin “Jack” Garcia, who, in the fall of 2012, told a packed room of riveted listeners about his stint as an undercover FBI agent, including how he infiltrated the Gambino crime family.

Ullman and his team knew they had to sway public opinion, convince doubters such as me and Bryan, who is on the museum’s board of directors, that it’s more than a life-size shadow box of gangster-movie gore. To bolster its cultural cred, management came out of the gate with smart, big-time players on the side of law enforcement, people who would expose the mob’s unglamorous nature.

The Garcia connection was a no-brainer for the nonprofit board that runs the Mob Museum, led by Ellen Knowlton, a 24-year FBI veteran who was once the special agent in charge of the bureau’s local division. They plugged the museum’s event planners into a national network of law enforcers, filling out a full slate of G-Men rock stars.

But that didn’t account for the evening with Messrs. Bryan, List and Miller. The governors panel—called Protectors of the State to evoke their role in shepherding Nevada from its Bugsy Siegel to Joseph Yablonski eras—represents another type of event the museum hosts: courtroom conversations. These are meant to appeal less to those who’ve seen Donnie Brasco a dozen times, and more to those who’ve read every edition of Resort City in the Sunbelt.

And neither of those would have captured the wild, well-heeled thirty-somethings who crammed the museum for Repeal Day, a booze-soaked blowout in honor of the end of Prohibition. Then there was The Tell, for Las Vegas’ intelligentsia; Kefauver Day, which offered free admission; Law Enforcement Day, where kids could see live demonstrations of police K9s, and so on. Something for everyone.

But the most surprising aspect of all this is that it’s been somewhat improvised. There’s no formal director of education, and Ullman takes a trial-and-error approach to his event schedule.

With the Springs Preserve, The Smith Center, the Discovery Children’s Museum and other institutions, Downtown is building an appetizing buffet of educational content. All hold events designed for a variety of audiences, but they could nevertheless find value in taking a page from the Mob Museum’s playbook. Las Vegans will travel from far beyond the 89101 ZIP code to hear national celebrities and beloved state icons tell their stories—or to dress up as flappers and dance the Charleston.

“Never rest on your laurels,” Ullman says. “You have to keep learning. That’s for sure.”


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