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October 23, 2014

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Chatting with Dennis Barrie, creative director of the Mob Museum

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Dennis Barrie, creative director of the Mob Museum

The planned mob museum has yet to receive a warm embrace from the community. Whether it’s feared gimmicky content or the outrageous use of public funds to the very idea of highlighting a violent past, there’s been a lot of complaining. So we decided to talk it out with Dennis Barrie, the museum’s creative director. Because if anyone knows about this type of situation, it’s this guy.

Barrie has spent most of his life in the museum world. He’s overseen the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, served as director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and helped create the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., to name a few.

And there was that little incident in 1990 when Barrie, then director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, was arrested on charges of “pandering obscenity” for showing the then-controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, The Perfect Moment. He was acquitted following a highly publicized trial.

What do you say to concerns that this museum will glorify the mob?

I think places should be honest with themselves. This is an interesting part of Las Vegas’ history. We know the mob is controversial. Some people say that a mob museum is glorifying the mob. We’ve taken a very different view. Not to glorify the mob, but to take a look at the history of organized crime and its impact on America—what that has done to our nation and to law enforcement— and to tell the story the way it was, the way it is. There are volumes of books on mobs and mobsters. But people tend to look at the sensational aspect of it.

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The post office and federal building, proposed site of the mob museum.

The story of mobs goes back to the various ethnic enclaves of America. Organized crime comes out of the tough neighborhoods of any society. These characters rise from the slums and wind up controlling big parts of the world in business, politics and all sorts of things.

What are the challenges with this museum?

You’ve really got to look at ways of presenting topics that are engaging and that will draw half a million people a year to ensure operating success. In Las Vegas that’s a real challenge because there is so much glitz. The biggest challenge is getting people to come off the Strip into Downtown Las Vegas.

Is it for tourists?

The local population, at least at this point, doesn’t go to museums—your percentage is about 2.5 percent. So mostly it’s a tourist destination, so for whatever you develop, that’s something you have to take into consideration.

Do you see it as an economic booster?

There is a point in which any city has to have more. In Las Vegas, there are some people who could never leave the casino. But by the third or second day many people want to do something else, whether it’s shopping or the Hoover Dam. The city has to recognize that more attractions and museums diversify options for your audiences.

What about serving students in the community?

There will be an educational department and programming. You can do a whole American history tour at the museum because of all the topics you can discuss—ethnicity in America, immigration in America, prohibiting of substances in America, the legal system in America, race, entertainment, international politics, unions. All of that is built right into the subject. There’s not a topic it doesn’t touch.

How does this subject compare to that of the spy museum?

There are similarities in terms of topics—politics and American history and the difficulty of the topic. The Spy Museum was not easy, nor is the Mob Museum, because of the secret nature of the world you’re exploring. Not everybody loves the CIA or the FBI or the KGB. They’ve always been controversial agencies, so we had people that challenged us about doing a legitimate museum about espionage, that somehow we’d be glorifying these agencies and whitewashing some of the things they’d done that aren’t so savory or caused us political and moral difficulties. We said we were going to do an honest account of the history of espionage, and we kept our word on that.

How do you separate the attraction from the museum?

Whether it’s the Spy Museum, the Rock and Roll Museum or the Mob Museum, these topics have a lot to teach you about American and world society. They’re real touchstones to understanding what went on in the 20th century. They can be very serious places and still be entertaining.

Where do the acquisitions come from?

We’ve had cooperation from collectors of crime memorabilia, law enforcement memorabilia, cooperation from the FBI, cooperation of law enforcement agencies from Las Vegas and other cities, and we’ve had cooperation from family members whose family relation was in organized crime. We have the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall from Chicago that was owned by a woman who was in Las Vegas, whose uncle purchased it when they were tearing down the building in Chicago.

Do you see the mob museum as a conflict of interest for our mayor, who represented noted mobsters?

I think Mayor Goodman is fairly open about his past. I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest.

You were the only museum director arrested for pandering obscenity with the 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibit. How did that incident influence your approach to museums?

It made me firmly committed to telling it like it is. You’ve really got to be honest with your audiences.

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