Paris is known for the Louvre. New York City is home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Los Angeles has the Getty Center. And though Las Vegas doesn’t seem like a place concerned with preserving historic relics, the city is actually home to several unique museums and exhibits. Many of them provide a chance to absorb some
the city’s compelling — and sometimes bizarre — history.
From museums that present the treasures of several different “kings” to vintage neon signs, the atomic bomb and old-school pinball memorabilia, these are definitely not your average collections … but then again, Vegas
isn’t an average kind of town.
Elvis Presley may be gone, but his legacy lives on at The King’s Ransom Museum inside the Imperial Palace. Through July, Elvis fans can enjoy rare collectibles worth more than $2 million, all of which come with an interesting tale.
“It’s not just the items, but the story behind each piece,” said Bud Glass, co-owner of the King’s Ransom Museum. “It’s kind of like a time machine.”
For instance, after Elvis tied his scarf around a 5-year-old girl’s neck at a concert, two teenage girls tried to grab it, almost choking her. “Elvis saw it and stopped the show cold,” Glass said. “He brought her up on stage and took a jeweled emerald necklace from around his neck, kissed her on the cheek and said, ‘No one is going to take this from you.’”
Glass searched for the girl for two decades and finally found her three years ago. The necklace is now part of the exhibit.
Owners Glass and Russ Howe said Las Vegas is the perfect fit for their collection. “Elvis did something to this town that’s magical,” Glass said. “It was naturally a great place to bring Elvis.”
Items on display include costumes and suits from Elvis’ singing and acting careers, as well as martial arts uniforms, including one of his favorite karate medallions from the ’70s. Glass said it doesn’t matter that the medallion doesn’t have any intrinsic value. “It could have been out of a Cracker Jack box, but if Elvis wore it, it’s worth something,” said Glass.
The museum also has some of Elvis’ prized possessions, including his 1977 Lincoln Continental, the last car he ever purchased.
But this museum showcases more than the glitz and glamour of Elvis. It exhibits his personal side. You’ll see his earliest known signature from a 1947 junior high library check-out card for “English Fairy Tales” and his bedspread from his Graceland home. There’s even a Mylanta bottle and lip balm on display.
“Everyone knows the legend, but not many people know the man,” said Glass.
Glass’ favorite item is the Bible found on Elvis’ nightstand the night he passed away. “Elvis was a very spiritual person,” he said. “When you read [his] underlined passages, it gives you kind of an idea on some of the things that really hit home to Elvis.”
Jimmy Velvet, longtime friend of Elvis and curator of the museum, shares stories and signs autographs at the mueum. Referred to as the “Godfather of Elvis exhibits” by Glass, Velvet opened up his first museum across from Graceland in June 1978. Velvet said fans would line up just to see the 21 pieces he had at the time.
Velvet also shares funny tales from their teenage years. “He liked to play football on skates,” he said, laughing. “Talk about getting banged up! He was just fun, just so much fun.”
There aren’t many chances to see these kinds of unique items on display, according to Glass. “[It’s] totally different from anything at Graceland. It’s a fantastic opportunity for people to see a little glimpse of the man behind the image.”
The museum closes in July, so time is limited.
Located on Tropicana Avenue and Spencer Street (a few minutes east of the Strip), Liberace bought the complex in 1978 for $2.5 million. The Liberace Museum opened on April 15, 1979.
The musuem features pianos, cars, outrageous costumes, sparkling jewelry, awards and antiques. There’s also a café, a showroom and a gift shop.
At the museum, staff members share history of the legendary musician, who went from being poor to the highest paid entertainer of his time.
On display is a fine collection of seven of Liberace’s dazzling cars, including a Rolls Royce, Rhinestone Roadster, 1972 gold Bradley GT, his bubblegum pink Beetle and a classic 1957 English taxi cab. As a joke, Liberace would set the meter in his cab whenever he picked up friends from the airport.
Then comes the pianos, some more than 200 years old. One dates back from the early 1900s and was specifically used by street performers. Liberace’s favorite piano is covered in tiny mirrored squares (10,564 to be exact).
You may want to put on a pair of sunglasses to check out the sparkling jewelry, bedazzled microphones and colorful costumes on dislay. A piano-shaped ring features 260 diamonds, while a 115,000 carat rhinestone piece weighs an astounding 50.6 pounds.
Walking into the costume room is like stepping into a box full of crayons. From the pink ostrich-feather suit to the attention-grabbing patriotic hot pants outfit, you’ll see just about every color imaginable. Other costumes include a black suit with piano keys, the $750,000 Blackgama mink cape with 500 mink tails dangling from it and the red “Lasgana Suit,” which is one of Liberace’s all-time favorites. Another show-stopper is the the King Neptune suit which weighs 200 pounds.
You can have your picture taken in a Liberace-inspired cape, created by one of the museum’s volunteers.
Walk like an Egyptian
Before the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the King of Bling, there was King Tutankamen. The young King Tut ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.
The Las Vegas Natural History Museum provides a glimpse of the life and death of King Tut as well as the life of an Egyptian commoner.
Located on North Las Vegas Boulevard (just a short drive away from Downtown Las Vegas), the Las Vegas Natural History Museum recently added 4,000 square feet to accommodate its permanent exhibit, “Treasures of Egypt.”
The exhibit features interactive touch screens and a mock village, including a house and marketplace. “We wanted to set the stage on what everyone was doing 3,000 years ago,” said Marilyn Gillespie, director of Las Vegas Natural History museum.The museum re-created King Tut’s world famous tomb and its four rooms, (discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922). It incorporates replicas of vases, statues, jewelry, furniture, his thrones and much more. All the replicas were donated by the former King Tut museum at the Luxor hotel.
“These things are all replicas, but they were all made in Egypt by Egyptians using the same techniques and materials they used 3,000 years ago,” Gilespie noted. “Each one was signed off by the head of the Egyptian antiquities before it was sent to America.”
Inside the exhibit, you’ll get to try out the interactive mummy CAT scan. The scan goes through different layers of a mummy, from the bandages to the skeletal system.
“This is the first usage of this technology in a museum setting,” Gilespie said. “I think a lot of our visitors are looking at this as a big ‘wow’ factor.”
With more than 500 replicas on display, you’ll definitely find a favorite or two.
“People who haven’t been to the museum before are going to be pleasantly surprised,” she said. “This is a world-class exhibit. If [visitors] have any interest in Egypt, this is a must-see.”
Atomic Testing Museum
If you were around Las Vegas in the ’50s, you may have had the chance to see massive mushroom clouds rise from the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the country’s nuclear testing location just 65 miles outside the city. In fact, some casinos even offered seats so tourists could sit and watch.
Operating from 1951 to 1992, NTS had a total of 928 announced nuclear tests. While the state no longer conducts this kind of testing, the Atomic Testing Museum captures all of its history, propaganda, controversy and so much more. Open since February 2005, the Atomic Testing Museum is located inside the Frank H. Rogers Science and Technology building, only a mile from the Las Vegas Strip.
The museum houses approximately 10,000 square feet of interactive displays, short films, timelines and even real equipment from the former testing site. You can toy with some gizmos and gadgets as well, including testing your own radioactivity.
At the museum, you will read testimonies of workers who worked on the site, facts about the Cold War and the bombing at Hiroshima, view photographs of bomb testing and look at pop culture items, which include candy, soda bottles and cereal boxes.
To get a true feel of an atomic explosion, check out the Ground Zero Theatre, where you can watch a 10-minute movie about atomic explosion and even feel bursts of hot air and vibrations.
Even if you’re not much of the science or history buff, a trip to the Atomic Testing Museum exposes you to plenty of mind-boggling facts. And if you stop and think how this city was so close to actual atomic bomb testing, it will definitely blow your mind.
Pinball Hall of Fame
While the Pinball Hall of Fame may not have “museum” in its title, it certainly counts as one.
If you’re fascinated by retro pinball machines and video games, then come with a pocketful of quarters and get ready to for trip back in time. Located 10 minutes east of the Las Vegas Strip on Tropicana Avenue, the Pinball Hall of Fame has all your favorite pinball games and so much more.
Founded by the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, the 4,500-square-foot Pinball Hall of Fame features the largest pinball machine collection in the world. With pinball machines from the ’50s to the ’90s, there are a total of 141 machines.
If you’re the type of person who thinks today’s video game controllers have too many buttons, the attraction offers simplicity at its best with a fine collection of arcade games. Play timeless classics like Tetris and Super Mario Brothers — two games that never go out of style.
Neon Museum Las Vegas
The free, outdoor “gallery” starts in the front of Neonopolis at Las Vegas Boulevard and extends to 3rd Street near The Fremont Street Experience canopy.
Created in 1996, the Neon Museum offers you the chance to see these signs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Signs include the 1966 Aladdin’s Lamp from the former Aladdin hotel (northwest corner of Fremont Street Experience and Las Vegas Boulevard) and The Red Barn sign on 3rd Street, which was saved from a fire when the bar of the same name burned to the ground.
For more “sign-seeing,” The Silver Slipper, Binion’s Horseshoe and the Bow & Arrow Motel signs are located on the medians at the corner of North Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonanza Road, near the Old Mormon Fort.
While the three-acre Neon Boneyard museum, which is the final resting place for many old signs is closed for renovation until summer 2010, plan on making a trip here if you’re coming back to town. The Neon Boneyard is home to more than 150 non-restored and world-famous signs, including signs from Caesars Palace, Golden Nugget, the Stardust and much more. These signs may look tiny when they sit atop buildings but when you’re standing right next to them, they’re giants.