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[Public works]

The museum we can’t use

Unless it’s bailed out, Las Vegas’ other museum will be all dressed up with nothing to show

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Nevada State Museum building at the Springs Preserve.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

At the north end of the Springs Preserve, construction crews are wrapping up work on the large new Nevada State Museum—the state’s most ambitious museum. The new sand-colored building, with some of the best views of the city around, is more than 70,000 square feet, double the size of the current museum. The front entrance opens into a large, skylit rotunda, which leads down a long central corridor framed with lifelike rock forms made of concrete.

Exhibits will focus on the entire state, touching on everything from the history of mining and railroads to the development of Las Vegas. To its boosters, this is meant to be a flagship facility. “This is going to the be the biggest, nicest museum in the state of Nevada,” says Jay Nichols, the acting director of the Springs Preserve.

Construction on the $45 million (and counting) museum should finish on schedule this spring. But’s there’s just one little problem: There’s no money left to actually put in the exhibits and pay the personnel to run it.

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The Nevada State Museum

The current museum has been in Lorenzi Park since 1982. It’s a nice place, says David Millman, the museum’s director, “but we’re off the beaten track. It’s hard to find us. We never caught on like we could have or should have.” The museum’s attendance ranges from 20,000 a year to 70,000—the large swing depends on the number of school tour visits.

A bond passed in 2002 provided $35 million for the new museum. But construction costs proved higher than expected. “That was a period in Las Vegas when construction was hog-wild,” Millman continues. “It was hard to even find construction materials. There was so much demand. And China was pulling up all the copper, concrete and steel. Steel prices went up 33 percent in one year.”

Running short of money, the museum appealed two years ago to the state and received an additional $11.1 million. But even that has not proved to be enough. The museum needs $6 million for new exhibits and another $976,000 to pay for maintenance and utilities, and to add 12 new staff to, you know, actually run the place. Construction is likely to come in a little bit under the money that’s been allotted, potentially freeing up perhaps a million dollars.

Last April the museum requested additional funding through the state’s Public Works Board Capital Improvement Program. The board ranked the museum fourth in the state (among dozens of projects), but the recent budget problems have taken that support off the table.

“Right now we’re left with a couple of problems,” says Peter Barton, director of the Nevada Museums Division, which is part of the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs. “There’s no money to finish exhibits. And we had to eliminate the staff and funding to operate the new museum.”

A couple of problems, indeed. The plan now is to finish general construction and, if other temporary users cannot be found, then “essentially mothball the museum” until funds turn up. The Las Vegas Valley Water District has reportedly expressed interest in using some of the museum’s voluminous storage space.

The museum’s new exhibits have already been designed, but assuming funding is found—a big if—it could still take as long as a year to build and install the exhibits, so don’t look for the new museum to open this year.

Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed budget, not unexpectedly, has no provision for new museum funding; efforts to raise money privately haven’t amounted to much. Which leaves the Obama administration’s proposed stimulus package as a potential source of funds. Museum boosters are realistic about the odds. “There’s a lot of institutions in the state that are hurting, too. There are a lot of mouths open,” Millman says. “I don’t know where we are.”

Still, the state is trying to reach out to Nevada’s federal delegation. “We are exploring that option and having those conversations,” Barton notes. “We’re certainly there with our hand up.”

With concern about pork-barrel funding, if any federal funds are made available for museums, they may be disbursed through a federal agency such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Barton has worked at premier museums across the country, including the Smithsonian and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. He calls the hang-up particularly painful—for him the museum is “one of those places where the public intersects with government, and they almost always go away with a positive experience.”

“We’ve invested in major infrastructure,” he adds, “but we can’t quite bring it online.”

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