Adding flash to the State Museum

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LAS VEGAS -- Located in historic Lorenzi Park here -- just five miles from the bustling Las Vegas Strip -- the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society has led a fairly quiet existence for some 20 years.

While more than 60,000 people visit the 3,500-square-foot museum each year, it's the new kids on the Strip -- such as the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art and the Guggenheim -- that have gotten the big-name exhibits and the most attention during the past few years.

That's before Greta Brunschwyler became the state museum's director last October.

From the beginning, Brunschwyler racked her brain for ideas that would get more visitors through the door and put the museum on the map.

She turned to her friend Sandra Harris, executive director of the Neon Museum, which had a stash of unrestored neon signs that had never been publicly displayed.

The two decided to borrow from this collection for "Neon Unplugged: Signs from the Boneyard," which will be on display through Jan. 4.

The show, which takes up two of the museum's three rotating exhibit spaces, has been a hit with the public since it opened in May, according to Brunschwyler.

"It has been mutually beneficial for both of us [the State Museum and the Neon Museum]," she said. "We've gotten more people in the door, and the publicity from the show has stretched even into different countries."

Those who remember Las Vegas from years ago may recognize signs for the Landmark and the Normandie hotels, which are on display, as well as parts of the Stardust sign. Visitors may be intrigued by the signs' flash and color as well as their size: One letter of the old Stardust sign, for example, measures 14 feet.

"We have some really wonderful pieces from around Las Vegas," Brunschwyler said. "They were chosen because they are in good shape, highly recognizable and they fit in the building. Some of the ones I wanted [to include in the display weighed] tons and tons and were too big."

The groundbreaking exhibit is a departure for the museum, which usually focuses on natural history, Brunschwyler said.

"What we show in our galleries is the history of Las Vegas and southern Nevada and a little about the state [overall]," she said.

The museum features three permanent galleries, one of which focuses on the natural history of the Mojave Desert.

Then there's the ice age gallery, complete with the state fossil -- an ichthyosaur. "Las Vegas used to be underwater, and there were these huge fish about 40 feet long," she said.

This gallery features many interactive activities for children. "You can rub images of the fossils, and there are a lot of things to touch," said Brunschwyler. "You can also walk underneath [replicas of] Columbian mammoth bones [that have been put together]. It's very cool."

The third gallery focuses on history, which starts with the Native American presence in the area and moves along through time to displays about Nellis Air Force Base and Hoover Dam. The museum even recreated "Bugsy" Siegel's hotel suite, complete with what had been some of his possessions, Brunschwyler said.

Other topics covered in the gallery include "the Strip, mining, nuclear testing and World War II stuff," she added.

For groups, the museum has an auditorium with media capabilities that can accommodate up to 100 people. The entire museum, which can fit 500 people comfortably, also can be booked after hours.

Just a short cab ride away from the Strip and also accessible via the local bus line, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except for Christmas, New Year's Day and Thanksgiving. Admission is $2 per person for visitors age 18 and older.

The museum can be reached at (702) 486-5205; more information also can be found at www.nevadaculture.org.

To contact reporter Amy Baratta, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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For more details on this article, see Signs of the times, in neon.

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