From dramatization to blood-spattered reality: The Mob Museum’s interactive exhibits draw you into the mob war.
The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement celebrates its first anniversary this Valentine’s Day, and attention must be paid. It’s taken me nearly a year to check out the institution colloquially known as “The Mob Museum,” unless you count my hard-hat tour of the renovated Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse—79 years old, this year—before any of the exhibits were installed.
But this month, I finally paid a proper visit. I finally got made. And I’m kind of ashamed that it took me so long, because the finished museum is a marvel. The previously empty rooms are now chock-full of artifacts: Thompson submachine guns, flasks from the Prohibition era, a copy of the Gaming Control Board’s “Black Book,” pieces of early Vegas booster Abe Schiller’s wardrobe and even a replica of Sing Sing’s electric chair. Every surface not devoted to artifacts or video is now covered with photos and text.
Too much text, perhaps? When I picked up my ticket a docent warned me time was tight: “We close in two-and-a-half hours. Each of the floors takes about an hour to see, and there’s three of them.” I didn’t believe him until I was deep into the third-floor displays—you begin at the top floor and work your way down—and I realized that every room was a textbook. You could easily spend a week in the Mob Museum doing the reading. Check out the effort one of our own did here.
At least it’s good reading. I enjoyed the exhibits devoted to the birth of the mob and the origins of Las Vegas, and I like the sly way the museum coils those parallel stories around each other until they combine, spectacularly, in a second-floor exhibition devoted to Vegas’ first golden age. And I’m impressed by how the museum uses the features of its historic building—in particular, the courtroom where the Kefauver Committee hearings were actually held in November 1950—to put you inside the mob story in a way the museum’s interactive exhibits can’t quite do.
You’d have to be made of some pretty dense stuff to not be affected by the room devoted solely to the Al Capone-led St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. When a film on the massacre ends, the screen retracts noisily upward to reveal the brick wall against which the members of Chicago’s North Side Gang were aligned and summarily executed. This simple effect—from dramatization to bloodstained reality—is profoundly chilling and wholly unforgettable.
But man alive, it’s a lot to process, both in terms of the volume of information and the tone in which that information is presented. Some of the exhibits flirt with self-parody; the wall devoted to global piracy—with its collage of pills, fake designer purses and counterfeit Sylvester Stallone DVDs set in resin—strongly resembles an art project we made in 1995 to win a lifetime supply of Fruitopia. And the voice of the museum verges on satire: Tough-sounding, dry-voiced males narrate nearly every film and every exhibit; it’s like receiving the opening narration of Law & Order over and over again.
That speaks to something that troubles me about the Mob Museum. Although law enforcement gets equal time throughout the museum—right down to a stern-faced “cop” who Mirandizes you in the elevator—sometimes the museum is unclear about which side of the police line it favors. I suppose that’s fair—the same could be said of nearly every Martin Scorcese film, even Hugo—but I thought that an educational facility wouldn’t be tempted to go there.
But it does, and again, perhaps that’s understandable. Being bad is easier and more fun than being good, and even the exhibits devoted to those who fought the mob seem awestruck by the cold-blooded efficiency of the criminal organization that necessitated the fight in the first place.
(Admittedly, I might feel that way because most of the crime-fighting exhibits are near the end of the tour—first floor. By the time I got to them I had been at the museum for two hours, and I was feeling a bit punch-drunk.)
But these are quibbles. At the end of my visit, I was happy to find my early, positive opinion reaffirmed: The Mob Museum is a gift, and Las Vegas is better for having received it. The museum draws in tourists who might not have otherwise ventured Downtown, and more important, they’re curious and intellectually engaged—just the kind of visitors who’ll enjoy the locals-oriented culture we’re making on nearby Fremont East. (One of the museum employees expressed genuine surprise when I told him I was local.) These aren’t the ones who drink yard margs and have The Hangover on Blu-Ray; these are the ones who’ll read Dennis Lehane while drinking a Negroni at the Mob Bar. They get it.
I’ve never been one of those people who blithely says, “Aw, this town was better when the mob was running it.” No, I’m glad they’re gone; they killed people and terrorized the weak. But the Mob Museum has greater ambitions than glorifying thugs. So much of this city’s history is lost, imploded or papered over with Hollywood’s misleading fictions. The Mob Museum not only collects this lost information, but also presents it without apology. The history of our beginnings is there, splattered on the walls.
THE MOB TALKS
The mob may keep a code of silence, but luckily for us, the Mob Museum does not. Over the past year, the museum has maintained a terrific relationship with the local community through a regular schedule of special events ranging from hosted lectures to good old-fashioned parties. The museum’s public relations policy is more akin to omnipresence than omertà.
The lecture series is a perfect example. The museum’s second-floor courtroom, used during opening hours as a theater showing a film on the Kefauver Commission, is just the perfect size for visiting experts like Dr. Mark Galeotti, a specialist in transnational organized crime; Jack Garcia, a retired FBI agent who spent years undercover in the Gambino crime family; and former Mayor Oscar Goodman, the attorney who defended Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro. These events strengthen both the museum’s community bonds and its singular ownership of an entire chapter of American history.
The museum also knows how to have fun without being disrespectful to those who made sacrifices in the ceaseless battle against the mob. The museum granted free admission on “Kefauver Day,” November 15—the day the Senate hearings on organized crime came to Las Vegas (and the museum’s aforementioned courtroom) in 1950. For “Repeal Day”—the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition—they held a party with speakeasy-inspired cocktails.
And at 10 a.m. February 9, the museum is asking locals and visitors to take a “Blood Oath”—not to join the mob, but to shore up the life-saving bank at United Blood Services. Donors get two free admissions—and unlike the real mob, I’ll bet the Mob Museum would like you to tell everyone you know.