When you think of Las Vegas, your first thought is “academic rigor.” Scholars the world over have come to Vegas to expand their minds and double check their footnotes. Just kidding, most people come to Las Vegas to turn their brains off. However, that doesn’t mean the discerning geek is without options for informative, experiential fun.
Las Vegas happens to have a lot of unique museums geared towards the most Vegas-y aspects of Vegas. When you’re known for gambling, sex, and criminality, you might as well really show it off. Many of LV’s best exhibits explain how Sin City came to get its rep. When you need a break from bottle service and various Cirques de Soleil on every corner, here are the best places for a mental recharge.
The Mob Museum is located within the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, and they make full use of the building’s history. You can immerse yourself in the site of the Kefauver Committee hearings, where the mafia was finally exposed as a real going concern. It’s hard to imagine in a post-Godfather world, but the mafia’s existence used to be such a closely-guarded secret that many people thought it was an urban legend. The Mob Museum traces the roots of organized crime in America through prejudice against immigrants, Prohibition, Vegas, until finally going Hollywood in the ‘70s. The museum does a great job of highlighting organized crime that doesn’t always get the cinematic treatment: the Jewish mob, the Cleveland outfit, and the mafia’s role in early 20th century entertainment. And it’s all brought to you in a poppy, engaging multimedia presentation. (Photo courtesy of Unsplash.)
An unparalleled collection of commercial art, the Neon Museum is where old neon signs go to die. The museum offers both daytime and nighttime tours, which offer different pleasures. If you want a sense of decay and desert ruin, come during the day. But at night, the signs come back to life and you can relive their former glory. And for those who want a little more razzle-dazzle, the museum has a nighttime light show, Brilliant!, which utilizes projection mapping and 3D sound to fully immerse you in the Vegas of old. This museum is a must-do for artists, as there are gorgeous shapes and colors coming at you from every angle. Photographers will especially appreciate how the tour stops periodically for photo op upon photo op.
The Barrick is the art museum at UNLV, and it does a terrific job of showing off the school’s art department. The gallery is in an old gymnasium, and the school’s old mascot is still painted on the floor. What sets the Barrick apart from any old college’s art museum is its thoughtful curation. Contemporary artists are given space to install works that challenge the viewer, and an interactive area encourages visitors to engage with the art of indigenous cultures of the area. The gallerists do an amazing job of highlighting the work of BIPOC artists.
The Las Vegas Natural History museum is charming and quirky. A taxidermy collection is housed in what looks like the fellowship room of a church, and many of the dinosaur exhibits are bolstered with janky animatronics. If you want to see limited motion in a slightly scaled-down T-Rex, this is the place for that. Animatronics are operated by the push of a button, which may make kids go mad with power. They make the most of a limited budget to give a surprisingly holistic view of Las Vegas’ pre-human history, animal life, and geology. And there’s an Egyptian exhibit, because what is a natural history museum without a mummy? Nothing, that’s what. (Photo courtesy of kennejima through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)
For some people, the main argument against museums in Las Vegas is that they aren’t horny enough. Enter the Erotic Heritage Museum, which is located just off-Strip next to the Deja Vu strip club. The museum mostly consists of the private collection of Harry Mohney, founder of the Deja Vu. It is clearly a labor of love, with vintage Times Square porno booths, a Marquis de Sade display with tortured soft sculpture women, and a seemingly endless collection of horny pottery. (Photo courtesy of Viaggio Routard through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)
Back in the ‘50s Las Vegas was known for three things: gambling, legal divorce, and the atom bomb. The National Atomic Testing Museum pays tribute to the latter. Part ode to scientific innovation, part condemnation of atomic folly, the Atomic Testing Museum is probably the most museum-y museum on this list. But if you want a break from the desert sun (or nuclear fallout), this is the spot. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Thompson through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)
Most casinos on the Strip have some sort of art gallery, whether it’s a museum like the one at the Bellagio, or just a place for whales to sink some of the money they won at the craps table. What sets the Bellagio Fine Art Gallery apart is how well it highlights contemporary art, especially that of Asia. They’ve displayed authentic Yayoi Kusama infinity rooms, and they are (ahem) infinitely better than the many knockoff versions you’ll find across Vegas. It is the place to go for a sense of where fine art is headed, more closely aligned with the work you’d find on Art21 than Antiques Roadshow. (Photo courtesy of David Shane through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.)
Across the street from the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, the Pinball Hall of Fame has classic pinball games as far as the eye can see. It is a bare bones operation, with hella pinball and little else. They have the latest games from companies like Stern and Jersey Jack, classic machines featuring characters like Elvira, Doctor Who, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even a few prototype machines you can’t play anywhere else in the world. It’s all part of a massive collection featuring games from the last eight decades. Every game is available for play (if they’re not out of order), which makes this the most interactive museum on the list.
Bethy Squires is a writer and Magic Key holder in Hollywood. You can find her on Twitter @BethyBSQU.