In ways both profound and subtle, the Las Vegas we know today would not exist had it not been for organized crime. It was mob money that built much of The Strip, from Bugsy Siegel's "fabulous" Flamingo in the 1940s all the way through to The Aladdin in the 1960s with stops at The Sands, The Dunes, The Desert Inn, and The Stardust along the way. When Senator Estes Kefauver held hearings in the early 1950s investigating the mafia's reach and influence, a courtroom in Las Vegas hosted some of the testimony.
But once the mob had been (mostly) rooted out of Sin City, it seemed as though the city itself would've preferred you forgot about that particular part of its history. In the sanitized, corporate world of modern Las Vegas, there is no room for anything that could sully its image as a trustworthy, albeit hedonistic, playground. It was a riff on the city's catchphrase: what happened in the past should stay in the past.
With the opening of its doors The Mob Museum has shattered that revisionist history through an entertaining, interactive, and high-tech look at the mafia in America and in Las Vegas in particular. It is, without a doubt, the best museum in the city and should be a must-visit attraction on everyone's list.
Located in the old courthouse building that held the Kefauver hearings, the exhibits cover more than 17,000 square-feet on three floors of the beautifully restored building.
Visitors start on the third floor with a line-up, complete with one-way glass and a recorded voice telling people to "step forward" so the rest of the crowd can get a good look at you. It sets the tone for the rest of the experience, demonstrating that while the subject matter may be grim the examination of it doesn't have to be all museum seriousness.
Various well laid out displays with lots of big, easily readable text, photos, and video runs through the early history of the mob in America, explaining how organized crime grew (chalkboard diagrams offer a visual representation), prospered during prohibition (pictures are on casks set into the wall), and eventually came to Las Vegas (a room evoking the Arizona Club is filled with old Vegas memorabilia). Interactive bits include a Tommy gun that you can "shoot" - it bucks and jerks and makes noise when you pull the trigger, often startling those in the room who weren't expecting it - and a video showing the ceremony through which someone is "made."
The design of the displays is lively and engaging, with each offering graphic and textual ways of explaining the subjects. A big photo of a dinner party filled with mafia figures is fronted by a buffet table with interactive screens embedded in the top on which visitors can surf a "menu" of mob locations and names. A paragraph discussing how drugs were smuggled into the country from Europe in tomato sauce cans is surrounded by dozens of them embedded into the wall.
Big showcase pieces include the electric chair from Sing Sing and a video about the St. Valentine's Massacre in Chicago broadcast on the actual wall in front of which seven Mafioso were shot.
And that's all just on the top floor.
The second floor is dominated by the courtroom in which the Kefauver hearings were held. It has been restored and features the actual bench and pews that were in the room at the time but goes beyond just a museum display by introducing video and 3-D technology to make it appear as if you are in the room while the hearings are going on.
The rest of the second floor is devoted to the mob in Vegas, with information on various figures that ran the city and the casinos they oversaw. There's lots of video and memorabilia here plus some really cool interactive pieces using touch-screen displays built into old slot machines.
A lot of the first floor is about the various crime-fighting techniques used by law enforcement to bring down the mob. There are stations at which you can listen to wiretap style recordings and a simulated weapons training room using a video wall and a very real feeling gun to give you a "you are there" feeling in a dangerous situation. Other displays include information on the witness protection program, women in the mob, and the mafia's influence on popular culture (complete with memorabilia from The Sopranos).
A 2017 remodeling and expansion project will add several new exhibits, expand the gift shop, and add a food and beverage service, plus a speakeasy in the basement. That should be done by early 2018 and the museum will remain open during construction.
As much as I've described, there is so much more and every piece of it is endlessly fascinating. Although you could do the entire thing in about an hour if you skim and move quickly, visitors should budget at least two hours to do it justice.
The Mob Museum is the kind of place that should be a destination all on its own, providing a reason besides the casinos, shows, shopping, and dining to visit Las Vegas.