The visit starts with a familiar litany: “You have the right to remain silent....”
The creators of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas want visitors to have the full outlaw experience. So instead of Muzak, the elevator offers a stern-voiced rendition of the Miranda warning.
Getting off at the third floor, I started with a primer on the history of the Mafia in the U.S., going back to certain 19th-century immigrants who pursued the American dream by any means necessary.
The museum opened on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of the 1929 massacre in which Al Capone’s soldiers lined up seven men from Bugsy Moran’s gang against a garage wall and gunned them down. The wall is preserved here and used as a projection backdrop for a short film describing the choreographed hit.
The collection is housed in the former federal courthouse where Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver held one of his hearings on organized crime in 1950.
“This is first a historic preservation project,” says Robert Chattel, a consulting architect for the museum. “All of the historic features are intact and in place. The exhibits are like a scrim, a theatrical face on that.”
The restored second-floor courtroom is itself an exhibit. A short film that explains the hearings uses television footage from the sessions. They were viewed by about 30 million people at the time, introducing much of the U.S. to the world of organized crime.
Other artifacts include the barber chair from the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York where mob boss Albert Anastasia met his bloody end in 1957.
Before entering one room, the visitor is warned that scenes therein aren’t for the squeamish and an alternative route is available. Those made of sterner stuff can enter and contemplate the murder of Bruno Facciola, who was shot, stabbed and stuffed with a canary in 1990 in New York.
Other images in the museum are lighter: Ronald Reagan hamming it up onstage at the Last Frontier casino in 1954, hawking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer; a photograph of Catholic Church bishops posing with casino executives.
The interactive exhibits are wickedly entertaining. I plugged a couple of thugs using a firearm training simulator, crawled inside a packing crate just as federal agents did to snoop on bad guys, and listened to surveillance recordings of John Gotti’s tapped phone, in which the “Dapper Don” gives the okay to whack a rival.
‘Funding a Boondoggle’
Not everyone is happy with the mob showcase.
“Funding a museum dedicated to organized crime is not a function of government,” says Victor Joecks, spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank. “Either the taxpayers are going to end up funding a boondoggle, or the museum will draw tourists away from privately owned attractions in the area, and that is fundamentally unjust.”
The City of Las Vegas took over the federal building in 2002, and put up most of the $42 million to rehabilitate and restore the 41,000-square-foot building. The city is hoping the investment will help revive its drooping downtown. That’s a big bet on a long shot, but if any town is up for it, it’s Vegas.
The museum is open Sundays through Thursdays, 10-7; Fridays and Saturdays 10-8. Admission $18; $10 for Nevada residents. Information: +1-702-229-2734, or http://themobmuseum.org.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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