Guest Columnist

Nevada State Museum a boon to cultural tourism

The fossilized skeleton of an ichthyosaur is displayed with other prehistoric artifacts at the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. The ichthyosaur was named Iris — for its large eyes — in a contest by schoolchildren in 2014. (Mark Damon/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Think of him as a regional encyclopedia on legs. As such, Dennis McBride ensures that tourists and locals alike can discover that our hometown and everything that surrounds it are much more than what the cry of “Vegas, baby!” suggests.  

A proud product of Boulder City, McBride has preserved our treasured accomplishments in our collective memory, from writing oral histories of the men who worked on the Boulder/Hoover Dam, to chronicling how women helped build Boulder City, to tracing the history of the gay and lesbian movement in the Las Vegas Valley.

Often called upon to be interviewed for documentaries about Southern Nevada, McBride worked at Special Collections & Archives at UNLV (where he studied history in the 1970s) before taking the reins at the Nevada State Museum in 2012.

You want to learn about Southern Nevada history? That’s one-stop shopping: Chat with Dennis McBride.

I’m a Las Vegas native. When I grew up here in the 1950s and ‘60s there were no museums or art galleries. Las Vegas was never a “cultural wasteland,” but resources were meager. I never imagined as a young man that Las Vegas one day would have as many museums as it does now, or that I would one day be in charge of one.

The Nevada State Museum has an important role to play in the state’s efforts to promote the historical aspects of cultural tourism. Established in Lorenzi Park in 1982, the museum in 2011 moved into a new building on the Springs Preserve campus, from where artesian springs and creeks once helped the native Paiutes survive, and which fed the settlements and ranches that eventually became the Las Vegas we know today.

The Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, is the only museum whose exhibits and holdings encompass the entire state, while emphasizing the history of our southernmost counties and cities.

Dennis McBride

The museum celebrates the Icthyosaur — Nevada’s state fossil — which swam the deep seas that once covered the state. Visitors are greeted at the entrance of the museum’s permanent galleries by a Columbian mammoth, one of the mammals that grazed the Ice Age grasslands and ciénagas of the Las Vegas Valley. The museum has exhibits on the Native Americans of Southern Nevada; on the state’s mining, railroading and ranching history; and on the Chinese, Latino, African- American and other populations that worked to create the state of Nevada, as well as the City of Las Vegas.

With exhibits of antique slot machines and vintage hotel/casino memorabilia, the museum pays homage to the state’s gaming and resort industries. The museum’s library and archive contain the personal papers of many of Las Vegas’ notable movers and shakers, in addition to the commercial papers of pioneer businesses and service institutions. Our Natural History collection details the geology, archeology, and flora and fauna of Nevada, and includes one of the largest butterfly and host plant collections in the Southwest.

The Nevada State Museum also honors the state’s iconic entertainment industry through the largest collection of cabaret costumes in the world, which includes the Folies Bergére costume collection, as well as design drawings and production scores. The museum is also the official repository for memorial artifacts of the 1 October shootings, gathered from Las Vegas’ Healing Garden. A large temporary exhibit gallery and cases throughout the museum accommodate changing exhibits and pop-up displays of the museum’s holdings.

Integral to the success of museums and cultural facilities is collaboration. The Nevada State Museum has become a resource and collaborative partner for several other institutions in Las Vegas. While our staff lends their expertise, the museum itself loans artifacts that have been seen by locals and tourists in such places as the Mob Museum, the Atomic Testing Museum, area libraries, UNLV, the Clark County Government Center, the Las Vegas Convention Center and McCarran International Airport. These teasers generate interest not only in the Nevada State Museum, but in the other museums and cultural institutions as well. In addition, the museum’s location on the Springs Preserve complements both.

While Nevada, in general, and Las Vegas, in particular, have long been promoted as entertainment destinations, that one-note perception is rapidly changing. While today’s tourists are certainly interested in the extravagant stage shows, fine dining, gaming and nightclubbing, they want to know the “story behind the story.” They want to spend time away from the Strip learning about how Las Vegas became what it is today by learning what it was before. Nevada has the most unique and varied history of any state in the country and travelers want to know the who, what, when, where, how and why of Nevada and Las Vegas.

That starts with a visit to the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.

Voices of Vegas features guest columnists from all walks of public life in Las Vegas. With columns touching on local cultural, historical, social, civic, educational and humanitarian topics, among others, they weave a tapestry of perspectives that emphasize the dynamism, depth and benefits of the Southern Nevada tourism industry.

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DENNIS McBRIDE/Director of Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas

DENNIS McBRIDE/Director of Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas