Southern Nevada Museums

An issue of National Geographic magazine includes a brief article about the most influential cities in the world according to the Global Cities Index. One of the five criteria upon which the cities are ranked is cultural experience, e.g., venues for the performing arts and museums. With a beautiful Nevada State Museum at Springs Preserve and nearly 20 more fascinating facilities dedicated to topics ranging from atomic testing to antique neon signs, Las Vegas—though not yet on the Global Cities Index—and its neighboring communities offer a broader cultural experience than many people realize.

Nevada State Museum—Las Vegas 

Nevada State Museum—Las Vegas

The Nevada State Museum—Las Vegas opened its new location, adjacent to the Springs Preserve Museum in 2011. A replica of the oldest living thing on earth and Nevada’s state tree, the bristlecone pine, greets guests in a grand foyer filled with natural light. A life-sized skeleton of a Columbian Mammoth guards the main exhibit space, where the state’s history dating back hundreds of millions of years is laid out in an artful chronology. Exhibits that explore the state’s geological and natural history include interactive touch-screen monitors, lifelike recordings and models of animals, and fossils including a more than 30-foot-long ichthyosaur, the state’s official fossil.

Nevada’s substantial mining history is explored with interactive exhibits and a holographic display that shares oral histories. Anthropological displays such as a large exhibit concerning Nevada’s American Indians and small exhibits about the state’s Chinese and Basque immigrants share the human diversity of Nevada. As the exhibits progress to modern times, they take on a Las Vegas-specific tone that includes the city’s rise to entertainment capital, Howard Hughes’ substantial impact, and the ostentatious costumes of showgirls.

In addition to the impressive exhibit space, the new Nevada State Museum also houses a massive collection storage vault, workshop space, research library, education lab, meeting rooms, event space, and a full catering kitchen. “People only think about exhibits,” says former director David Millman. “But this is so much more.”

Lost City Museum

Lost City Museum

A hidden gem among Southern Nevada’s cultural attractions, Lost City Museum in sleepy rural Overton is perhaps the state’s most historically significant museum. Built by the National Parks Service and Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to house artifacts from the Anasazi site of Pueblo Grande de Nevada before the rising waters of Lake Mead covered it, the Lost City Museum also happens to sit on an Anasazi site itself. An extension of the museum was intentionally built atop the ruins in the 1980s to protect them. According to the museum’s curator and archeologist Dena Sedar, the Lost City—as Pueblo Grande de Nevada came to be called—was the subject of great attention in the early 20th century, a likely explanation for the extreme care taken to preserve its relics.

Today, the ruins are the center of the museum’s main exhibit and serve as an example of what an actual archeological dig site looks like. The history of the excavation at Pueblo Grande de Nevada is explored in depth alongside thousands of artifacts from the site that range from pottery to shells used for trading with neighboring tribes. Other exhibits share the history of the museum itself, which was turned over to the State of Nevada in 1953, and an overview of Nevada’s geologic past. Young visitors to the museum are huge fans of its recreated outdoor pueblo dwellings that accurately depict the way ancient Anasazi lived and the functions their various adobe abodes served.

Nevada State Railroad Museum—Boulder City

Nevada State Railroad Museum—Boulder City

Las Vegas, Nevada, and the entire West owe their existence to railroads. Without the easy supply and transport of goods and people provided by trains, Nevada’s mines would never have moved their mineral wealth for processing, and the staggering amount of construction materials and workers needed to build Hoover Dam could have never reached Black Canyon. The Nevada State Railroad Museum, Boulder City is a celebration of that legacy and offers popular weekend rides aboard an antique train on almost four miles of the historic Boulder Branch Line to Railroad Pass.

Passengers travel in comfort on air-conditioned refurbished Pullman coaches dating to 1911 during the 40-minutes rides, offered on Saturdays and Sundays. The special Santa Train during the first three weekends in December draws a jolly crowd, and a staged train robbery by the Reenactment Guild of America scheduled for March is sure to excite. The train can be rented for special events, and The Depot Store offers souvenirs to commemorate visits. The Engineer for an Hour Program offers serious train buffs the chance to pilot one of four diesel-electric locomotives.

National Atomic Testing Museum 

National Atomic Testing Museum

Perhaps the most dubious chapter in the Silver State’s history is that pertaining to the testing of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site about 70 miles north of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1962, the 1,375-square-mile patch of Nevada desert was the stage for 121 above-ground atomic tests and 928 underground detonations from 1963 until a 1992 moratorium put an end to such tests. The National Atomic Testing Museum explores the chilling history of nuclear testing in the United States, from World War II and the Manhattan Project to the current and future challenges of testing and disposal of the country’s immense nuclear stockpile.

The museum’s galleries are ordered chronologically. A brief exhibit about World War II, the Manhattan Project, the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and tests in the Pacific serves as a reminder that the museum is very much focused on the technological significance of atomic bombs and the testing thereof in Nevada, not their impact on WWII. The Atomic Age Gallery details the earliest days of atomic testing and even includes a delightfully outdated Disney film/cartoon that explains a nuclear reaction.

One of the museum’s most talked-about exhibits, Ground Zero Theater, is a multi-sensory experience that simulates an above-ground test and includes commentary from people who witnessed such tests firsthand. The Versatile Laboratories Gallery and Grain Silo Theater illustrate the various uses the Test Site served after atomic testing was halted.

Boulder City—Hoover Dam Museum 

Boulder City—Hoover Dam Museum

Boulder City was established in 1931 to house Hoover Dam workers and their families. It only makes sense that the story of the dam so big it required a city to support its construction would be told by the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association. The museum covers all aspects of the Boulder Canyon Project with three-dimensional interactive exhibits that include artifacts and photographs from the dam, plus oral histories from the men and women who helped build one of the greatest engineering feats in human history. The sounds of the dam’s construction echo through the museum much as they did 80 years ago in the depths of Black Canyon.

Clark County Museum 

Clark County Museum in Henderson is a 30-acre site operated by Clark County Parks and Recreation that includes a modern exhibit hall with a timeline that covers Southern Nevada from pre-history to the present. A collection of restored historic buildings that depict daily life from different decades in Las Vegas, Boulder City, Henderson, and Goldfield
occupies much of the museum campus.

Erotic Heritage Museum 

It is often said that we should not judge a book by its cover, and potential censors would be wise to hear the Erotic Heritage Museum out before reaching for their Puritan black bars. Dedicated to the preservation of erotic fine art, artifacts, and film, the museum maintains an air of sophistication with 17,000 square feet of permanent and featured exhibits that celebrate sexuality and eroticism as natural aspects of the human experience.

The museum is owned and operated by Exodus Trust, a nonprofit that aims to perform educational, scientific, and literary functions relating to sexual, emotional, mental, and physical health.

Hispanic Museum of Nevada 

The Hispanic Museum of Nevada at 330 South Valley View Boulevard was founded in 1991 and is dedicated to promoting awareness, education, and resources concerning Nevada’s diverse Hispanic cultures and traditions and enhancing intercultural understanding. Exhibits at the museum focus on Latino-produced art, including sculptures, paintings, photographs, pottery, and textiles. Additional exhibits are available at El Rinconcito del Arte, or the Little Art Corner, at 250 North Eastern Avenue in Las Vegas. The museum also hosts the annual Las Vegas Latino Short Film Festival in October.

Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum  

Located within Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum focuses on the history of commercial and general aviation in Southern Nevada—from the first flight in 1920 through the introduction of jets.

The main exhibit is above the baggage claim area, with additional exhibits in ticketing, at the A, B, C, and D gates, Terminal Two, the North Las Vegas Air Terminal, and the Henderson Executive Airport. Among the many interesting aviation artifacts, the main exhibit’s red 1956 Ford Thunderbird convertible is a favorite. The car was once owned by Alamo Airport (McCarran’s original name) founder George Crockett and was a fixture around the airport in the 1950s and ’60s.

Las Vegas International Scouting Museum  

Scouting enthusiast Robert Lynn Horne opened the Las Vegas International Scouting Museum in a space next door to his medical practice in 1999. Since, he has amassed an enormous collection of scouting badges, uniforms, postcards, trophies, and other memorabilia from around the world. Tours of the museum are available by appointment only.

Las Vegas Natural History Museum  

It’s easy to spot a child’s favorite toy—perhaps it is missing an eye, is more faded than the day it was pulled out of the box, and has a stain or two on its fur. One certainty can be drawn from the minor blemishes: It has been well loved for a long time. The Las Vegas Natural History Museum shows the wear of a facility cherished by countless thousands of children since opening its doors in 1991. But, like the favorite toy, the slight imperfections only add to its charm.

The museum’s grand hall is lined with cultural and historic artifacts and leads to the International Wildlife, Marine Life, Wild Nevada, and Prehistoric Life Galleries as well as the Young Scientist Center and the museum’s newest attraction, the Treasures of Egypt exhibit. The exhibit shows visitors how archeologists in the early 20th century unearthed the tombs of Pharaohs and what daily life in ancient Egypt was like. The exhibit is filled with recreations of some of the most famous treasures extracted from King Tutankhamun’s tomb, including the Golden Shrine and Throne, outer sarcophagus, and chariots. The African Savanna and Rainforest Galleries and the Early Man exhibit, which chronicles mankind’s rise from primate to modern human, occupy the museum’s lower level.

There has been discussion of the Natural History Museum trading its cramped quarters—the 33-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Prehistoric Life Gallery risks bumping his head on the ceiling—to occupy the former Lied Discovery Children’s Museum when that facility moves to its new home later this year.

Discovery Children’s Museum 

Discovery Children’s Museum

The Lied Discovery Children’s Museum in downtown Las Vegas echoes with the sounds of learning made fun, literally. A Saturday visit reveals children from toddlers to pre-teens exuberantly bounding from exhibit to exhibit, thirstily devouring each topic amid excited laughter and seemingly endless cries of “Mom! Look!”

Nearly 100 exhibits geared toward specific age groups teach children about healthy eating habits, cultural diversity, environmental consciousness, scientific pursuits, and more. Some of the most popular exhibits include Growing Up with the Berenstain Bears, based on the popular children’s book series; It’s Your Choice, which compares and contrasts healthy versus unhealthy lifestyles; The Green Village, where children experience everyday living lessons with an environmentally conscious theme; and second-floor exhibits that feature science, communication, and technology.

The Mob Museum  

The Mob Museum

Occupying Las Vegas’ former federal courthouse and post office, which played host to the 1950 Kefauver hearings on organized crime, The Mob Museum is the nation’s premier museum dedicated to organized crime and law enforcement. The beautifully restored 1933 neo-classical building houses exhibits about organized crime around the world, mob dealings specific to Las Vegas, and how law enforcement battled (and still battles) organized crime and eventually pushed it from Las Vegas’ casinos. Read “Mob Ties” starting on page 66 for more information on The Mob Museum and organized crime’s substantial influence on Las Vegas.

Neon Museum 

The Neon Museum

Since neon first graced the Glitter Gulch skyline in the 1930s, many signs have outlived their usefulness and been taken down to make way for bigger, better, and brighter beacons. Most of those signs were not owned by the businesses they served but were instead leased from sign builders such as Young Electric Sign Company and were relegated to storage yards or repurposed following their tours of duty. The Neon Museum holds more than 150 of those discarded signs, the bulk of which are housed in the fenced Neon Boneyard.

The new visitor’s center, which formerly served as the iconic shell-shaped lobby of the La Concha Motel includes a reception area, interactive exhibits, event space, and museum offices. The museum’s extension, the Fremont Street Gallery on Fremont Street between Las Vegas Boulevard and Third Street downtown, features nine refurbished signs that, unlike the non-lit signs in the Boneyard, can be visited during a self-guided walking tour 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nevada Vintage Race Car & Aviation Museum 

Ed Rachanski, a motorsports entrepreneur and former racecar driver and Korean War flight engineer, owns Henderson’s Nevada Vintage Racecar and Aviation Museum. The museum houses several of his vintage racecars, an array of motorsports memorabilia, model aircrafts, Korean War-era artifacts, and the nose section of a C-119 “Flying Boxcar.” Rachanski’s FAA-certified aircraft engine shop occupies the same building as the museum.

Pahrump Valley Museum 

Although the town of Pahrump has only come to prominence in the last few decades, the region holds a rich history dating to Spanish explorers and Shoshone inhabitants. This history takes center stage at the Pahrump Valley Museum. The museum includes several historic buildings from Pahrump’s early days, antique farming and mining machinery, a southwest garden display with a large variety of cacti, and a large exhibit hall. The hall features artifacts from Pahrump’s past along with a display dedicated to Yucca Mountain and atomic testing in Nevada, plus one of the finest collections of Abraham Lincoln—Lincoln was president when Nevada was granted statehood in 1864—memorabilia in the country.

Searchlight Community Museum 

Located inside the Searchlight Community Center, the Searchlight Community Museum focuses on the fascinating history of the 1898 town, including its early prominence in mining and collateral fame of being the birthplace of former U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

Virgin Valley Heritage Museum  

Virgin Valley Heritage Museum

Since the days of the Old Spanish and Mormon Trails, the Virgin Valley has hosted persistent pioneers—it took three attempts to sufficiently subdue the Virgin River to the point that a permanent settlement could be built. The stories of those settlers and more are shared at Mesquite’s Virgin Valley Heritage Museum. Historical books, artifacts, and photos make up the exhibits and a recreated 1920s parlor room offers a glimpse of a simpler time.  #NVMuseums