The Mob Museum
Las Vegas, Nevada
Where else but Vegas could this happen? A giant museum is created about mobsters -- a tourist attraction costing taxpayers $42 million, the pet project of a flamboyant mayor who'd served as a defense attorney representing crime kingpins such as Meyer Lanksy.
Mayor Oscar Goodman first dreamed of a Las Vegas museum about crime (and justice) in 2002. It stayed just a dream for years. Visitors could get a bit of Nevada's crime history at the state capital museum in Carson City, or seek out the Bugsy Siegel Memorial hidden in a Vegas casino courtyard. And then the rival Mob Experience opened, closed, then opened again as Mob Attraction Las Vegas... but the mayor's museum was going to be the real deal.
The Mob Museum finally opened on Feb. 14, 2012. It was the 83rd anniversary of Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre -- and the reassembled, bullet hole-pocked brick wall from that 1929 Al Capone rub-out is the museum's star exhibit.
Its official title is the National Museum of Organized Crime and Enforcement. Just a block north of crazy Fremont St., the Mob Museum fills most of a three-story, neo-classical 1933 Post Office building that later served as a federal courthouse, hosting U.S. Senate hearings on organized crime. That's an important detail, because the museum's first challenge is dispelling perceptions that it is a vanity project for generations of local hoods and shady characters.
The Mob Museum strives to balance between crime and enforcement, though it frontloads with the former before many get their comeuppance from the latter. That's fine with us. An elevator ride to the third floor allows visitors to start at the origins and rise of the mob, then descend through the building.
Exhibits are built around artifacts acquired or loaned by mob families and memorabilia collectors, including rare photos and personal items from the pockets of psychopaths and zealots. The design, by the team behind DC's Spy Museum and Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, mixes traditional museum "stuff" with interactive multimedia and opportunities to immerse in society's underbelly.
In "How Did It Come to This?," a police line-up of five visitors stand behind one-way glass while their photo is snapped. The "Mob in America" lists characteristics and habits of the criminal class -- coming from bad neighborhoods, delinquency in the formative years, graduating to adult level mayhem. One hundred "rackets" are cheerfully jotted on a chalkboard, showing opportunities amply arrayed for a career criminal.
A video touch screen invites visitors to take a mob "Blood Oath" administered by an actor from Goodfellas central casting.
Displays of pop culture memorabilia -- G-Men pulp magazines, toy G-Man guns, Dick Tracy comics -- share a room with target silhouettes of famous criminals. Visitors can grab a Tommy Gun and get a feel for a back alley showdown. A more elaborate gunfire simulation is based on the Fire Arms Training Simulator used by law enforcement.
Just down the hall is a dramatically lit replica of the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison (perhaps taking some artistic license to match the red color scheme of the museum). Elsewhere another death seat is displayed -- the New York City barber's chair where Albert Anastasia was murdered in 1957.
The second floor is mostly dominated by a restoration of the old courtroom where U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver led hearings on organized crime in 1950-51. Just outside the courtroom is a glass cabinet filled with the career memorabilia of -- Oscar Goodman, highlighting various victories ("Defending the Mob and Defending the Law"). A plaque salutes Goodman as Defender of the Year.
While most of the museum presents the national scope of the mob, you'll find some chronicling of local legends and their casino connections, especially in "The Game Continues" gallery. Another room resembles a vault, lined and stacked with $100 bills, and tells about the ever-popular casino "skim."
But the museum makes clear this is no local disease -- the mob's reach was vast. The spider web design of the "Influencing World Affairs" room is a cartoon surprise, especially when we spot a display of news clippings about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After a lifetime of cracked conspiracy theories, this seems accepted fact: "Oh yeah, the mob killed JFK."
On the ground floor, the museum explores the tools of law enforcement -- "Bringing Down the Mob" with wiretapping, collecting evidence, and inter-agency cooperation. The struggle isn't over, of course -- new arch-villains are revealed, though fashion brand counterfeiters and the hacker collective Anonymous seem less terrifying than a slug in the head.
There's also a "Myth of the Mob" exhibit paying tribute to Hollywood's depictions of the mob with Sopranos wardrobe and other gangster movie props -- including a half burnt head and torso of a wise guy who didn't take his Blood Oath seriously enough.