Las Vegas museums: Blasts from Sin City's past

Museums are reflecting an awakened interest in the city's backstory, writes Tim Richards.

For a brick wall, it's pretty arresting. Standing within Las Vegas' Mob Museum, this patchwork of discoloured brown bricks is dotted with holes surrounded by patches of red. I assume it's a replica of the wall at which Chicago's infamous St Valentine's Day Massacre occurred, in which seven gangsters were cut down by persons unknown.

Then I read the notation: "This is the wall against which Bugs Moran's men were shot on February 14, 1929." This is the actual wall. In 1967, when the building was demolished, its bricks were numbered and re-erected in a Vancouver nightclub. Later the museum bought them and reassembled them here.

Creepy. But it's not the only fascinating fragment of the city's past.

Las Vegas has never been a place that looks back, always reinventing itself. But scattered around the resort city are a number of museums reflecting an awakened interest in the city's backstory. The Mob Museum, formally known as the National Museum of Organised Crime and Law Enforcement, is one of them. Opened in 2012, it's packed with intriguing exhibits which examine organised crime and how it's combated.

These include a replica of Sing-Sing's electric chair, a barber chair in which a mob execution once happened, and props from Hollywood gangster films. One section details the popularisation of government agents as G-Men to counter the dark appeal of the villains.

Given its past as a hub of Mob activity, Vegas is perfect for such a museum. Near the end, however, one room details the international fight against organised crime, using a world map studded with smuggled goods and pharmaceuticals. The lessons of the past, it seems, are still relevant today.

Mob Museum, 300 Stewart Ave, Entry is $21; see themobmuseum.org.

At the other end of Vegas, in the Tropicana resort, I come face to face with the bad guys at the live-action Mob Attraction. Given a passport at a mock-up of the Ellis Island immigration control, I have to knock on a door and meet with an actor playing a gangster, who leads me through an impressive New York streetscape to meet with mafia boss "Big Tony".

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This is followed by a tense interview with a cop who's noticed my unsavoury associations. But Big Tony has told me just to "say nuttin'," so I keep schtum.

Further on, a series of rooms holds exhibits dedicated to the notorious Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. It's curious how often these violent men would have a taste for the delicate and refined, such as Cohen's penchant for bulldog statuettes.

Along the way, my passport has been marked by the actors, recording my actions. This, I discover, determines what happens when visitors enter the final room to be confronted by a filmed Godfather deciding whether you've made it as a gangster.

So do I succeed in becoming a "made man", or end up sleeping with the fishes? Hey, who wants to know?

Mob Attraction, 3801 Las Vegas Blvd South. Entry $35; see mobattraction.com.

From 1951 to 1992, more than 900 nuclear weapons tests took place at the sprawling Nevada Test Site northwest of Vegas.

That legacy is remembered at the National Atomic Testing Museum, tucked away well east of The Strip. Despite the serious-sounding title, it's a fascinating mix of science, history and culture.

The main exhibition strikes a neat balance between the serious and the quirky.

Beyond a display of postwar pop culture items bearing atomic symbols or mushroom clouds, I enter a mock bunker to experience an unnerving simulated nuclear test, complete with rumbling and shaking.

The separate Area 51 exhibition adopts a lighter tone, with the mysterious Agent Black welcoming visitors to an exploration of UFOs via clippings and interviews.

Carefully neutral, the exhibition withholds an opinion on their truth or otherwise. . . until the very last moment.

National Atomic Testing Museum, 755 East Flamingo Rd. Entry to both exhibitions is $21; see nationalatomictesting-museum.org.

If gangsters and nuclear weapons sound a bit grim, head for the Pinball Hall of Fame. .

The interior isn't slick, but the machines provide plenty of colour, light and sound. Best of all, entry is free and the games can be played for 25 or 50 cents, with the proceeds beyond running expenses going to charity.

Pinball Hall of Fame, 1610 East Tropicana Ave. Free entry, see pinballmuseum.org.

Another overlooked piece of Vegas history is one of its earliest, at least with a European connection. In 1829, a Spanish expedition stumbled upon the area now known as Springs Preserve, an island of greenery in the middle of desert - thus giving the place its name, Las Vegas ("The Meadows").

The Preserve is north-west of The Strip and hosts several attractions, all well-suited to family fun: the Nevada State Museum with exhibits ranging from prehistoric Nevada through Native American culture to the resorts of today; the interactive features of the Desert Living Centre; the Origen Museum which focuses on Las Vegas; and walking trails past native habitats and archaeological sites.

Springs Preserve, 333 South Valley View Blvd. Entry is $20; see springspreserve.org.

The writer travelled as a guest of Fiji Airways and Visit USA.

FIVE MORE VEGAS MUSEUMS

NEON MUSEUM

Features huge neon signs from demolished Vegas casinos, arranged as if in a junkyard. See neonmuseum.org

HISPANIC MUSEUM OF NEVADA

Explores the diversity of Hispanic cultures and traditions, connecting with the state's Spanish past. See hispanicmuseumnv.com

NEVADA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM

In nearby Boulder City, this museum operates weekend train rides.

See nsrm-friends.org

THE AUTO COLLECTIONS

Exhibition of 250 classic cars at The Quad resort, from vintage autos to sleek racers.

See thequadlv.com

MARJORIE BARRICK MUSEUM

Displays a fine collection of pre-Columbian art alongside contemporary work.

See barrickmuseum.unlv.edu

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Fiji Airways and its partners connect to Las Vegas from Sydney (from $1900 return) and Melbourne (from $2000 return). Phone 1800 230 150 or see fijiairways.com.

STAYING THERE

Tropicana Las Vegas, 3801 Las Vegas Boulevard South, from $117 a night, see troplv.com.

Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, 1 Fremont Street, from $74 a night, see goldengatecasino.com.

MORE INFORMATION

vegas.com; visitusa.org.au

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