More than a collection of aged, dusty signs, the Neon Museum in downtown Las Vegas outlines the vibrant story of an improbable city in an inhospitable desert that grew to attract visitors from around the world. The bright signs beckoned motorists through the dark landscape for miles and then frenetically competed for visitors' attention.
Some of the neon is instantly recognizable, some relatively forgettable; dozens are resplendent in their original lit glory, more are illuminated with ground lighting and others are irrevocably broken down, never to be electrified again.
Visitors marvel at the scale and beauty of the glittering Stardust lettering, the 82-foot-tall Hard Rock Hotel guitar and the ostentatious Moulin Rouge sign, with letters from 14 to 18 feet tall and from 3 to 17 feet wide. The letter M alone weighs 1,200 pounds. Neon gas and phosphorous blue glass give the neon its fluorescent pink color.
In addition to the emblems that promoted prominent hotel-casinos, smaller signs for more modest motels, diners and other businesses such as a dairy and dry cleaner are placed throughout the outdoor yard.
Founded in 1996 and housed at its present 2.3-acre campus since 2011, the museum attracted as many as 250,000 guests annually before the pandemic and is on target to reach 190,000 this year.
When he first visited the museum while interviewing for the job of executive director, Aaron Berger, who was named to the post in July, was surprised at the substance to go along with all that style -- the history amid the pretty lights.
"The signs themselves have a beauty to them and art to them," Berger said. "And yet they're really the catalysts for telling the stories of our city's history."
In the neon's glow, docents lead 45-minute walking tours nightly. They concisely put the signs into the context of the city and the times. They share stories about notable personalities, such as casino owner Benny Binion (the Horseshoe) and the Moulin Rouge's role in the civil rights movement; the hotel was the city's first integrated resort when it opened in 1955.
Guests perhaps know that Betty Willis crafted the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign still lighting the south Strip, but they may be surprised to learn that that's her handwriting on Moulin Rouge. That particular sign resonates with Berger, who spent the past 20 years in Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement.
"A visitor can come to us and be enamored with the incredible colors and the script, that beautiful pink that's in the Moulin Rouge sign. ... Other people may find the history, like I did, to be completely eye-opening and wildly enlightening."
About 250 pieces of the museum's collection of 800 signs are displayed. Employees of the nonprofit monitor the signs in the often-brutal conditions. Excessive heat, cold spells, monsoon rains, wind, birds and other wildlife all adversely affect the signs.
"These signs are designed to withstand those conditions," Berger said. "However, there are limitations to everything. So we have to be constantly looking at how do we prioritize those signs and care for those signs."
Restoring a sign costs from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fundraisers are held for specific signs the museum acquires and deems worthy of restoration.
Signs with no electricity running through them and little hope for restoration are displayed in the North Gallery. They form the palate for "Brilliant! Jackpot," an immersive audiovisual show held at night. Projection mapping brings the signs to life so guests can imagine what they looked like in better days; Vegas-related tunes form the soundtrack of the experience. Three slightly different versions of the production reflect three eras of Vegas history: Western, atomic and golden.
In addition to recently added Spanish-speaking tours, Berger hopes to soon add features that double-down on the education component and delve more deeply into the Black, Latino, Jewish, LGBTQ and Indigenous peoples' experiences.
"Las Vegas Luminaries," an 808-square-foot mural by Las Vegas-based couple Nanda Sharifpour and Ali Fathollahi, was unveiled this month. It highlights some lesser-known contributors to Las Vegas' history and the diverse communities that helped shape its culture.
Among those who are represented:
Theodora Boyd, a pioneering Black showgirl from the Moulin Rouge.
Kenny Kerr, a "boylesque" female impersonator and early champion of AIDS research.
Paul Revere Williams, the first Black architect admitted to the American Institute of Architects and the designer of La Concha Motel, whose lobby is now the museum's visitor center. He also designed the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip.
Oscar Gonzalez, a Mexican American neon bender whose work can be seen throughout the Vegas valley.
Visitors can scan a QR code to get more facts about the people depicted.
Berger said last summer's accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) enables the Neon Museum to more credibly speak to other accredited institutions, develop traveling exhibits and borrow works by current neon artists and others using light, video or electricity. The Neon Museum is also looking for indoor spaces around the valley to display art that may be more sensitive to the environment.
The museum will always preserve and display the signs of the past, but Berger wants to explore more contemporary uses of light beckoning people off the street.
"What are the contemporary uses of neon? What are the contemporary uses of signage? How are we producing signs in today's day and age?" Berger asked, hinting at the ways the museum can remain relevant into the future.
Tickets for daytime general admission (self-guided, one hour) are $20; nighttime guided tours (45 minutes) are $28; and "Brilliant! Jackpot" sound and light show (25 minutes), $23. Hours are from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. this month. Tickets are released about one month in advance.
Visitors without tickets can also see nine restored signs from the museum's collection or free throughout downtown. A map of this public art can be found at https://www.neonmuseum.org/the-collection/public-art. To learn more, visit www.neonmuseum.org.