The Nevada State Museum is reborn at the Springs Preserve
By Renée LiButti (All photos by Ryan Shewchuk)
Park the DeLorean. Unhand the remote control. Step out of the phone booth. You won’t need any of the clever contraptions from “Back to the Future,” “Click” or “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in Las Vegas. Those who visit the Nevada State Museum, which recently reopened in an architecturally stunning building at the Springs Preserve, will come as close as is humanly possible to traveling backward and forward in time.
With half a million objects – ranging from Cretaceous fossils and Native American baskets to vintage slot machines and showgirl headdresses – housed in a two-story circular structure with a commanding view of the Las Vegas valley, the Nevada State Museum is poised for a bright future.
“Every cultural institution in Las Vegas struggles,” said David Millman, the museum director, regarding state budget cuts and other funding challenges that delayed the move by a couple of years. “But we’ve persevered, and I think we’ve got something pretty great to offer.”
Established in 1982, the Nevada State Museum occupied a small, outmoded building at Lorenzi Park. Relocating to the Springs Preserve, which is situated only 15 minutes from the heart of the Strip, has had several benefits. Above all, the 180-acre attraction shares a similar vision of the past and future. Not only does the Springs Preserve examine the early development of Las Vegas, primarily as pertains to water (the attraction is run by the Southern Nevada Water Authority), but it also seeks a sustainable tomorrow. The Nevada State Museum complements that vision with a larger frame of reference. Exhibits here tell the story of the state as a whole – chronicling its mining, railroading, ranching and atomic testing days. This means visitors have an amazing opportunity to delve into two great cultural institutions and get a richer view of Nevada history in one place. What’s more, there’s only one admission charge.
“I’d like people to have a perspective and an appreciation of the state,” said Millman. “They need to learn that present-day Nevada didn’t just spring into being. There’s a reason we are what we are.”
At 70,000 square feet, double the size of its former location, the new building is spacious and airy. Stepping through the doors feels like an epic experience. Bathed in sunlight, the lobby has a high ceiling and earth-toned color palette. Standing tall as a centerpiece is an exact replica of a bristlecone pine, Nevada’s state tree. With a bent and twisted trunk, it’s the longest living tree in the world – a fitting symbol for a museum.
“Museums are fundamentally about collecting and preserving,” said Millman, while pointing out additional exhibits in the hallway, including a sample of barite, an important industrial mineral mined in Nevada, and a $25,000 chip from the long-gone Dunes casino. However, for the past several months, his focus has been on the complexities of change.
“It’s like moving 20 houses all at the same time and you have to be very, very careful,” said Millman of the whole transition process. “Someone asked me how you move an ichthyosaur, which has bones that are 250 million years old, and my answer was ‘very slowly.’”
Visitors to the Nevada State Museum are now having serious fun exploring the past. The 13,000-square-foot permanent gallery takes you on a journey from pioneering and mining days through the modern age of gaming and megaresorts. Preserved native wildlife and must-see relics abound in every corner. Also competing for visitors’ attention is photographer Cameron Grant’s “Unexpected Nevada” display in the adjacent temporary gallery. He has created layered images from the state’s dramatic terrain and famous landmarks like Hoover Dam and printed them on aluminum.
The Cahlan Research Library is another important facet of the Nevada State Museum. For nearly five years, Crystal Van Dee has served as the curator of manuscripts. Along with an extensive collection of rare and processed manuscripts, the library has newspapers from around the state, dating from the late 1800s to 1968.
“When I started at the Lorenzi Park location, I was so excited to be working in a museum. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Then when we moved here, it felt like working in a museum in New York City or Los Angeles,” said Van Dee. “It didn’t feel like the Las Vegas frontier museum anymore. It felt like something you’d compare to a museum in another major city.”
And just like those other venerable museums, the Nevada State Museum boasts a hands-on educational lab for children, a gift store, a special events room and an auditorium.
Las Vegas residents Jay and Linda Officer, who hold a yearly pass for the Springs Preserve, came to check things out after watching a segment on the local news.
“We looked forward to seeing the ichthyosaur and found everything very interesting and well laid out,” said Jay.
“I was so impressed with the holograms,” added his wife Linda, in regards to a multimedia component that brings Nevada mining camp inhabitants to life. “Their eyes kept following us when they were talking.”
In addition, many visitors make a beeline for the fossil collection, where magnifying glasses now enhance the experience. An eclectic institution, the Nevada State Museum certainly seems to be fitting into its new digs.
“The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, The Neon Museum and The Mob Museum are all coming next year. With us and them, that really kicks Las Vegas forward culturally and educationally,” said Millman. “It’s a sign that Las Vegas is maturing as a city.”
And it’s also a sign that the Nevada State Museum is making history everlasting.