Las Vegas Sun

May 22, 2019

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Museum plans arresting experience

A man who spent years with those who went toe to toe with the FBI during Las Vegas' virtual ownership by the mob scoffs at the notion of a “Mob Museum” in downtown Las Vegas.

“Stupid idea,” the man said. For the record, he is no longer part of anything that has anything to do with anyone “connected.” Can't go near them. Won't go near them.

He also adds: “Oscar's crazy.”

He's talking about Oscar Goodman, mayor of Las Vegas, and his rapidly materializing idea of turning the city's first post office, at 300 Stewart Ave., into a museum dedicated to an era some call odious, some call safer and almost everyone calls interesting.

These also are interesting times in the world of museums, which these days aren't simply places to house precious works of art. Sure, those exist. Even when the admission is free, however, they are being overshadowed by for-profit museums that offer interactivity, vivid imagery and excitement to a younger generation that has been fed video games and computers from birth.

In simpler terms, the new museums are perhaps a little more interesting.

And you'll find few among even the old-school museumologists, or curators, who are complaining.

“I have a degree in museum education. I've worked in museums for 25 years,” said Anna Slafer, who has been hired by Las Vegas to offer ideas for the Mob Museum.

“And none of this rubs me the wrong way. Because as an educator, I'm always looking for ways to engage the public, looking for ways to learn.”

Slafer is the director of exhibits and programs for the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., a for-profit museum. In the five years it has been open, it has served 4 million customers -- an astonishing number for a museum. Further, the museum isn't even on the National Mall, where the nonprofit Smithsonian museums rest.

Libby Lumpkin, executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, has very little interest in mob history. “I am even disturbed you can find on the History Channel so much about them, and you might find children who know about ‘22-Fingers' something or other,” she joked.

“The mob hasn't really had a historical impact on the country at large,” she added.

Even so, she acknowledged, 4 million customers at the Spy Museum is “really a lot.” And that's in a city with only one-third as many tourists as Las Vegas.

What the Mob Museum might bring to Vegas, Slafer said, is not only a load of tourists to downtown, but also visitors who might take in other museums that exist or are tentatively planned.

For instance, Poju Zabludowicz, a billionaire from Europe, is considering the construction of a downtown museum to house some of his collection of contemporary art. Lumpkin's museum is moving to a much larger space closer to the Strip. There also are exhibits of priceless art in Strip casinos.

Might those benefit if the Mob Museum draws even a quarter of what the Spy Museum draws?

Paul Bosch, the Spy Museum's chief operating officer, who also consulted with Las Vegas on the Mob Museum, is certain other museums in Washington have benefited from the Spy Museum, if only because they've taken its hints about how to treat the customer.

“I came from Walt Disney World, and I bring the perspective of a business model to make a museum profitable in various forms,” said Bosch, who began at Disney in 1972 as a Captain Hook and ended 27 years later overseeing Epcot's millennium project.

Foremost, he said, is that when he arrived, he analyzed how the museum customer was treated. “I looked at how to cater to the children when they get here, because happy kids make happy parents, which make them want to buy merchandise because of the strong emotional take-away they get from the experience,” he said.

“I always tell staff: Think about the things we can do here that only the Spy Museum can get away with.”

That's critical, Bosch said, because Washington has plenty of museums subsidized by taxpayer dollars. Admission to the Spy Museum costs $18 for adults and $14 for children. Admission to the Smithsonian is free.

Though much of the Mob Museum is in the conceptual phase, some early ideas have been gleaned directly from the Spy Museum. For instance, when you enter the Spy Museum, you pick a “cover” identity and are interrogated by a virtual guard. Then your identity is tested throughout the museum.

Goodman said Mob Museum personnel will take mug shots of customers, read them their Miranda rights and book them as they arrive. Then “they'll hear the clanging of the elevator door as it closes,” he said.

Goodman expects the exhibits to be like none other because Ellen Knowlton, the former special agent in charge of the FBI's Las Vegas field office, is head of the Three Hundred Stewart Avenue Corp., the nonprofit body putting together the museum.

“The ironic thing is, she was the head of the FBI and I guess I was the head of the mob -- or some of the force behind it,” Goodman quipped.

“And she has gone back to FBI headquarters and has a pledge of their complete cooperation to provide for her all the memorabilia and history of the mob in America. That's as cool as it gets, because those are off-limits-type of products.”

In his superlative way, the mayor envisions the museum as being “the biggest draw in Las Vegas.”

The museum, expected to be completed in 2009, will cost roughly $48 million. To date, about $15 million has been raised, including $8.8 million in city funds and about $6 million in various grants. Of that, about $10 million has been spent to refurbish the building.

Much of the additional money needed, officials hope, will come from grants or further city funding.

To Slafer and Bosch, authenticity and product honesty will be essential to the museum's success. Their Spy Museum, for instance, is so detailed and informative that the CIA regularly brings recruits. “It's fun, entertaining and comprehensive and gives that emotional take-away,” Bosch said.

“And it's accurate,” Slafer added. “That's critical.”

It also has to be culturally significant. For the Spy Museum, it helped that spies such as moviedom's Jason Bourne and flicks such as “Mission Impossible” have been so popular. And with many of those movies and countless books centered on the spy mecca that is Washington, the museum had a built-in audience.

“It is about location, location, location,” Bosch said. “It works in D.C. because D.C. has more spies than anywhere else in the world. And I think that holds true for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas.”

Joe Schoenmann can be reached at 229-6436 or at [email protected]