Las Vegas isn’t what you’d think of as a museum town, but it’s actually home to dozens of them. However, they go beyond the usual venues to exhibit fine art or archaeological artifacts: Vegas museums are as likely to explore neon signs, horror movies, pinball machines, or atomic bombs. Why not tear yourself away from the gaming tables, celebrity chefs, and glamorous clubs to take a walk on the wild side?
Few things symbolize Las Vegas like the glowing neon of casinos such as the Sahara, the Stardust, and the Desert Inn. Of course, those casinos are no longer pouring drinks and dealing cards, but their signs live on at the Neon . Pieces range from the massive cursive marquee of the historic Moulin Rouge to a giant pompadoured pool player that stood atop Doc and Eddy’s Pool HallThe signs are incredible even unlit, but a number have been restored to their original glowing glory. The museum’s new program, Brilliant! uses a combination of photography, video, drones, and 3-D photogrammetry technology to animate a series of defunct signs. Signs from Binion’s Horseshoe, the Flamingo, and Denny’s are “re-lit” and synchronized to a soundtrack of classic Vegas headliners from Dean Martin to Elton John.
Bonnie Springs Wax Museum
Bonnie Springs Ranch is located about a half-hour outside of Las Vegas in Red Rock Canyon. Built in 1974, the ranch’s “Old Town” is a replica western village with a real ice cream shop and wedding chapel, but the fake graveyard, pretend mining shaft, and mock gunfights are the main attraction. There’s also a Western Museum of dusty antique carriage and craps tables, but even more bizarre is the Bonnie Springs Wax Museum. Tableaus include a saloon complete with buxom bawdy ladies, presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan (with shaggy Beatles-like hair), and an inadvertently amusing depiction of legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith being attacked by a grizzly bear.
Las Vegas Showgirl Museum
Ever since the first Dice Girl shimmied across the El Rancho stage in the late 1940s, showgirls have been synonymous with Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Showgirl Museum honors the history of the men and women who created and starred in glitzy productions like Splash and Jubilee! with an array of costumes, props, photos, sketches, and set pieces. The museum also has spectacular gowns worn by headlining divas such as Ann-Margret and Shirley MacLaine, as well as Hollywood memorabilia from the likes of Carol Channing and Sammy Davis Jr. Guided tours offer plenty of showbiz backstory as exotically attired mannequins peek out from every corner for an “only in Vegas” experience.
Located in an old courthouse downtown, the Mob Museum looks at the history of organized crime from the perspective of both the gangster and the cop. The museum is packed with artifacts from Moe Dalitz’s diamond-studded golf marker to a bullet-riddled slab of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall, as well as displays on global crime from the Yakuza to El Chapo, but the stress here is on interactivity. Visitors can play mobster and shoot a (bullet-free) Tommy gun, or see things through the eyes of law enforcement in the Use of Force training experience. The Underground is a basement speakeasy and distillery that takes learning through participation even further. Watch moonshine being distilled and beer being brewed.
Tom Devlin’s Monster Museum
Located in the picturesque village of Boulder City, Tom Devlin’s Monster Museum is jam-packed with plenty to beguile the horror aficionado. Memorabilia, posters, props and more pay homage to both classic creatures and more modern monsters. There are also life-size reconstructions of iconic horror moments, ranging from Chucky to the Cryptkeeper, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and ’30s undead Frankenstein to ’80s undead Michael Jackson. All were made by Tom Devlin, who has a long list of makeup and special effects credits and who sometimes allows visitors a peek at what he’s currently creating in his workshop.
Pinball Hall of Fame
“Museum” usually means “don’t touch.” However, the entire point of the Pinball Hall of Fame is the play as many of the hundreds of games as possible, from 1947’s Heavy Hitter to 2013’s Metallica. If you have fond childhood memories of hitting “extra ball” on the KISS machine, “extra game” on Attack From Mars!, or getting the high score on Pac-Man, you can revisit them here. Like many of the best museums, the Pinball Hall of Fame teaches about more than just is ostensible subject: You can see the evolution of graphic design in the back glass, the changes in technology from mechanical bumpers to computerized light-ups, and bear witness to pop culture obsessions from Aquarius to Super Mario Brothers to CSI.
Erotic Heritage Museum
Kid-friendly Vegas never made it to the Erotic Heritage Museum, where sexuality is celebrated in many forms and formats. The history of sex is examined through artifacts from Eva Braun’s panties to ’70s porn posters, while an art gallery contains sexually charged works from oil-painted pin-up girls to an enormous penis made of pennies. A section is devoted to political sex scandals and another display includes celebrity sex tapes. Of course, nothing is more seductive than actual living, breathing flesh, and the Erotic Heritage Museum hosts a range of events: The Puppetry of the Penis show is on several times a week and lectures, burlesque shows and film festivals are frequently on the calendar.
National Atomic Testing Museum
A Smithsonian-sanctioned mixture of science and history, the National Atomic Testing Museum examines Nevada’s history of atomic testing and research. Displays of everything that used to be branded “atomic” from candy to cereal to comics, as well as 1950s families beaming in their fallout shelters remind us of a time when the mushroom cloud was viewed with a mix of fascination and dread. A simulated nuclear explosion, as well as enormous “bunker buster” bombs, a vast array of Geiger counters and atomic testing dummies drive the story home in a visceral way. For those who want to dig deeper, abundant artifacts, maps, and first-person accounts invite lingering.
Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum
Over his years on Ghost Adventures, paranormal investigator Zak Bagans has collected a wide array of haunted, cursed, and just plain spooky objects. They’re on display in Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum, a historic, peaked-roof bungalow with an allegedly haunted basement and plenty of room for his collection. Items are arranged in vignettes, with sets, lighting, music, and sound effects to heighten the experience: Cannibal killer Ed Gein’s cauldron is displayed in a mock-barn with lightning and thunder effects, while mass murdering mastermind Charles Manson’s television is displayed, fittingly, behind bars. Other items include the staircase from a house that hosted a demonic possession, allegedly possessed dolls and a Dybbuk box, reputed to be “the most haunted object in the world.”\
Burlesque Hall of Fame
The Burlesque Hall of Fame celebrates the long history of the striptease, from the fan dancers of 1920s vaudeville to today’s video and variety show stars. The museum began in a bar in Death Valley and relocated several times before finding its new home in the Las Vegas Arts District, where a vast array of memorabilia is displayed documenting the lives and careers of these boundary-breaking bombshells. Here you can see Gypsy Rose Lee’s traveling trunk and Dita Von Teese’s martini glass bathtub, Jayne Mansfield’s pink loveseat, and Mae West’s autograph. If you’re feeling inspired, burlesque classes are available.