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The Strip Diary, Day Thirty: The Las Vegas Natural History Museum Has Outlived Liberace

With budgets cut to the bone, many museums are falling under, and many schools can't afford such fripperies as museum field trips. I don't know why the loss of a Liberace museum would make me sad, but it does.
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Day Thirty: The Bellagio ($144)

"I can't even make payroll from admissions fees".

Marilyn Gillespie isn't complaining; simply acknowledging a fact. Gillespie is the Executive Director of the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and, in the world of Las Vegas museums, her's constitutes a success story. "We had a Guggenheim, but that's gone," she says, "even the Liberace Museum had to close."

Seriously -- Vegas couldn't even support a Liberace museum?

"It's a generational thing. An Elvis museum might have universal appeal, but Liberace isn't so interesting to people any more."

I don't know why the loss of a Liberace museum would make me sad, but it does. "Are the museum closures because people don't want to venture off the Strip?" I ask. "It's partly that," says Gillespie, "but the Guggenheim was in the Venetian. The real problem is that Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world; not the culture capital. People don't come here for the museums."

Indeed they don't. During my tour of the Natural History Museum, I've seen maybe half a dozen visitors: in an average year, roughly 87,000 people will pass through its doors, bulked by students from the 350 schools that fall within the museum's catchment area (The Clark County School District is the nation's 6th largest).

Here again, though, Gillespie has a problem: with budgets cut to the bone, many schools can't afford such fripperies as museum field trips. "Every year I write checks to the schools to ensure their students can still visit."

The bulk of the Natural History Museum's operating expenses are met through donations of money and exhibits -- the Luxor handed over its entire King Tut exhibition to the museum -- and through corporate sponsorships. As Gillespie explains, some of this corporate generosity stems from companies wanting to raise their standing in the local community, but much of it is due to government legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act which mandates that financial institutions in particular must support local cultural projects. Additional assistance comes from the city, which charges the museum just a dollar a year in rent for its building.

Despite the constant financial high-wire act, though, Gillespie clearly maintains huge enthusiasm for her job; a job she's held since the museum opened in 1991. And I can understand the appeal of the gig, even if I can't quite bring myself to envy her for it. As a kid growing up in South East England, my two favorite museums were the Science Museum in London and the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire. My love for the former came from its interactivity: at the push of a button, science came to life -- spinning wheels spun, periscopes extended, traffic lights lit up. Tring, on the other hand, had no interaction at all, just row-after-row of glass cases containing stuffed animals I hadn't even seen in zoos: polar bears, sharks, even -- if I remember correctly - a dodo.

The Las Vegas Natural History Museum lacks both the scale of the Science Museum in London and the comprehensiveness of Tring, and yet my 10-year-old self would still have loved its stuffed polar bear, its tanks of live sharks and snakes and its interactive dinosaur exhibit and rain-forest. As a grown-up, I still had way too much fun pressing buttons and making it rain. Those things never get old.

The centerpiece of the tour, though, and the one that instantly turns Gillespie from helpful tour guide to excited historian is the King Tutankhamen exhibition. I slept through Egyptology at school, so seeing the near-faithful recreation of Tut's tomb, and hearing Gillespie explain the story behind how it was discovered, brought a series of revelations. Did I know Tut was buried with his two (stillborn) children; the result of his incestuous marriage? No I did not, Marilyn. Did I know that the tomb had been broken into twice before Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered it in 1922? To my history teacher's residual disappointment, again no. It's a cliche, but in this case it's a true one: I could have stayed there all day.

As Gillespie walks me out, back on to North Las Vegas Boulevard, six miles from the Strip and a mile from the nearest cab, she says she'd be grateful for any plug I can give to the museum.

"I'll do what I can," I say. And what I can do is this.

Frankly, I'd gone into the tour expecting to have to feign enthusiasm for a tired, underfunded but ultimately well-meaning local museum -- but, hey, I said I was going to explore culture off the strip, and it's not like I had many museums to choose from. But after an hour remembering my childhood love of museums, coupled with Marilyn's stories about keeping afloat in an almost impossible market for museums, I left wishing there was something I could do to persuade every visitor to Vegas to shun the slots for an hour and swing by Tut's tomb.

If only wishing could make it so.