When my dear friend Hannelore arrived in Las Vegas last month on her 1988 Honda Africa Twin adventure bike, I asked what she and her boyfriend, Jasper wanted to see. Both wanted to experience the Strip, of course—there’s an unspoken rule that you really can’t visit Las Vegas without having at least seen the Strip, just to say you did. Beyond that, Hanne listed two specific sites: Seven Magic Mountains and the Neon Museum.
As you’ll recall from last week, I hadn’t heard of Seven Magic Mountains until Hanne requested it. But the Neon Museum?
Oh, I had definitely heard of the Neon Museum.
And I was absolutely stoked to visit. An entire museum dedicated to defunct neon signage, from the iconic to the innovative to the inspired? Please. The Neon Museum had been on my to-visit list for over a year; all I lacked was an excuse.
Thus it was that Hanne, Katrina, the kids, and I headed downtown to explore the history of Las Vegas through the neon signs of yesteryear.
I’m going to apologize ahead of time for not getting more photos of the signs themselves. The day was hot—as it typically is in Las Vegas in August. Think 106° F (41° C), with not a cloud in the sky. The Neon Museum’s displays are all outside. My niece and nephew were having none of it. I highly recommend this spot… but please, for everyone’s sanity, attend at night or in the fall, winter, or spring.
The Neon Museum toys with the space between preservation and decay, to beautiful effect. It’s the first museum I’ve ever visited whose displays were all kept outside, exposed to the elements, and at first glance, I wondered if the word “museum” might be a smidge misleading. Museums are curated, climate-controlled, clean. Artifacts deemed worthy of preservation and display are carefully arranged in glass cases and behind velvet ropes. Exhibits are grouped in logical stories, whether by type, by chronology, by provenance. Above all else, there’s safe, static stability to the entire experience from the ticket counter to the gallery floors to the gift shop.
But at the Neon Museum—as with so much else in Las Vegas—things are different. The ticket counter and the gift shop are both indoors, but the main collection resides outside and is aptly called The Neon Boneyard.
Boneyard. What a truly excellent word. On its face, the word means cemetery; it’s a frank, informal statement of grim fact from a time when one might stumble upon actual bones when visiting the dead. But in these delicate days when the topic of death comes around, the word has shifted away from references to human resting spaces. Instead, it more often refers to vast sprawls of ruined and retired machinery: aircraft, automobiles, heavy equipment.
And neon signs.
Boneyards are often owned by companies in charge of manufacturing and maintaining something specialized, not least because something old and broken might yet have useful parts inside. This is the case with gigantic neon signs, which generally are not discarded because they’ve stopped working, but because a business has failed, or is rebranding, or simply wants an updated look. Why waste functional bulbs, wiring, and metal?
In Las Vegas, casinos and resorts don’t own their famous glittering signs. Instead, signage companies lease them out, designing, manufacturing, maintaining, and dismantling them in an endless sparkling cycle. Each ephemeral piece dances in Las Vegas’ skyline for an instant only. No light shines forever.
And when the lease is up, or when the casino fails, or when a new star rises—each sign is removed to the lighting company’s boneyard to be dismantled, cannibalized, and forgotten.
Then the Neon Museum entered the picture.
I don’t believe Las Vegas intended to become iconic in the traditional sense. When the city began growing into the adult playground it is today, the major stakeholders here were trying to make money—lots of it. Every decision they made, they made to draw customers. Weaving living, twinkling fantasies, they grew this city as an appeal to the wealthy and the frivolous, and over the course of the twentieth century, they created an empire.
But they didn’t realize, I don’t think, that they were also creating cultural artifacts. Las Vegas’ success has embedded the city in the world’s consciousness. The shifting shimmering skyline carries meaning now beyond the simple purpose of drawing revenue.
But the people behind the Neon Museum realized that the defunct neon signs of The City of Lights could serve a cultural, historical, and inspirational purpose beyond the sum of their parts. Founded in 1996, the Neon Museum began collecting discarded signs relating to Las Vegas’ vibrant and unique history, and now houses pieces dating from the 1930s through the present.
Most of the pieces were rescued from true boneyards, so the Neon Museum’s decision to display them in a boneyard context serves as an interesting statement about their near-fate. As it is, much of the main collection’s arrangement resembles a hoarder’s backyard or the cordoned-off storage space behind a rural antique shop, with mismatched letters leaning precariously against old-fashioned slot machines. Paint is peeling. Light bulbs are missing. Colors are fading.
But here and there a sign is lit, glamor dancing among the ruins. Lights call you forth to casinos demolished long ago. These dancing girls are ghosts. Those opulent rooms have been carried away in scraps. That star-graced stage is a memory in a few dwindling minds and a handful of photographs. But the lights—the lights are ever-brilliant in the boneyard.
The Neon Museum’s electrical grid will only allow a certain number of signs to be lit, and their budget only allows them to restore a precious few artifacts. Ground lighting illuminates most pieces in the evening. Visitors follow a gravel track through the Neon Boneyard, shielded from the sun by small parasols, and are separated from the displays by thin wire cables.
And when you’re tired of baking in the Mojave’s brutal sun, you hide beneath a broad awning and ask the tour guides for stories.
Every sign has a story.
And in this museum’s case, the stories are the real treat—because Las Vegas stories are full of delicious, scandalous gossip. Wildly successful casinos run out of business by the jealous Mob. Celebrities trapped in their hotel suites by crazed hordes of fans. Not-so-fabulous business ideas that spread through the Strip and ushered in a decade of decline.
All told through the history of design, architecture, and technology as it intersected with the development of Sin City as a cultural phenomenon. This sign was once the largest in the world. That sign was the most expensive. Those influenced these casino movies.
Even the Neon Museum’s Visitors Center is a piece of architectural history—it was once the Mid-Century modern La Concho Motel’s lobby and intersects with many of the Atomic- and Space-Age themes present in the featured signage.
Seeing all these artifacts jumbled together drew my attention to the ways human interest shifts and morphs. Much is made of individual attention span these days, but observing an entire boneyard of cast-off motifs, old-fashioned icons, and worn-out novelties, I’m forced to consider how fickle and capricious humankind can be overall. One moment something glittering absorbs all our focus, entrancing us, filling us with wonder. The next moment that something molders, forgotten in a boneyard beyond remembrance. Is human wonder worth so little?
But with stagnation as the alternative, how can this be wholly bad?
The Neon Museum straddles the space between stagnation and progress, creating opportunities to contemplate the scope of what once was. These are the influences this city was built upon—ephemera worth remembering. They’re the bones over which the future is built.
I’m excited to return someday to spend more time with each shimmering relic.
Have you been to the Neon Museum? Or another museum like it, full of artifacts no one intended to be preserved? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!