Seattle's Museum of History & Industry has an offsite warehouse in an undisclosed location, like most American museums. It's not open to the public, but I got in once. Basing my expectations for the warehouse on MOHAI's modest public exhibitions, I was astonished to find instead a disorienting mass of two-story open shelving units overstuffed with curiosities: a life-size, fiberglass cowboy named Black Bart. Stick-on beauty marks from the late 1800s. Somewhere in there, I'm told, is the skin of an unborn reindeer.
MOHAI's public museum is currently in a transitional state because the expansion of SR 520 requires the institution to move. New facilities expected to open in 2012 will be larger and more dramatic, inhabiting the Naval Reserve Building at Lake Union Park. But will the museum's approach and sensibility grow, too? Museums are not typically progressive organizations—few that raise the massive funds needed for expansion view the change as an opportunity to redefine how their facilities and their presentations relate to their objects and communities. Nobody's asking for advice, but here's some anyway: One of the most relevant, overlooked models for museums today to consider is that of the Neon Museum in Las Vegas—the best museum in America.
The Neon Museum is not accessible. I learned of it on a blog, followed a link to the museum's website, and found that registering for a tour in advance is mandatory; this became clear after I realized the address for this place was not posted anywhere on its website. Once in Vegas, I gave the cab driver the address. He started on his way toward downtown with confidence but soon began corresponding back and forth with dispatch, trying to determine a landmark near the museum. After a long pause from dispatch, the driver said he thought he knew where it might be and pulled onto the highway. Fifteen minutes later, I was dropped off at an empty intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Before me was the museum: two sandlots surrounded by a chain-link fence. A tour guide waited across the street from the museum, offering everyone water and an umbrella. No one took him up on it. The group stopped in front of a gate wrapped in a massive knot of chains and Master Locks. The neon signs protruded from behind the fence—the head of a king, a pool player bending forward, horseshoe arches, dollar signs—invading the otherwise barren downtown landscape.
The guide congratulated anyone wearing closed-toe shoes in anticipation of the broken glass and metal throughout the grounds. He mentioned the occasion when a visitor left requiring five stitches, having backed into a piece in the collection while trying to take a photograph. As we stood listening in the shade of the only tree in sight, the error in the group's collective refusal of the umbrella and water became apparent; everyone was already drenched in sweat.
The nickname of this place is the Boneyard. The only building on the three-acre premises is a half-constructed concrete clamshell designed in 1961 by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects, which will eventually house a modest visitor center. But for now, there are no readily available restrooms at this museum. There is no seating.
None of that mattered when the chains were unwrapped and we passed through the narrow gap one by one. Cameras immediately came out of pockets as we flocked to the nearest signs in sight: the Aladdin's silver lamp, the atomic letters from the side of The Stardust, the red Golden Nugget sign used in Martin Scorsese's Casino. These are the fallen relics of popular iconography. In the Boneyard, they are made authentic by the rust, scars, and broken light bulbs—the messiness that's absent not only from mainstream visual culture but also from the flawless museum objects of the present. Their histories are explained through the visual details that remain on their surfaces and at our feet in the form of broken glass, rather than in extended wall text and museum jargon.
American museums now follow formulas when creating the "visitor experience," usually amounting to the central location, high-profile architecture, and ample seating that characterize today's institutional experiences. In the process of creating a comfortable and often sterilized facility, the environment that allows objects to be explored rather than just explained can be lost. Both MOHAI's warehouse and the Neon Museum evoke the traditional wunderkammern, or "cabinets of wonder," back to which American museums trace their origins. The overpowering curiosity that comes with entering a space abounding with unlabeled artifacts is a natural inspiration to look closely and to ask questions, two tasks that mainstream museums spend large amounts of time, money, and text trying to encourage in their 21st-century audiences.
Yet the Neon Museum is more than evocative nostalgia in an innovative setting. Building community—in a virtually nonexistent one plagued by poverty, addictions, and governmental neglect—is the larger idea behind the museum's work. It has restored and brought 10 of its signs back into downtown, making them accessible to residents and tourists at no cost and with no institutional barriers, as truly public art.
The point is not that MOHAI, or any other museum, should simply drag its oversized objects out onto the streets. At MOHAI, for example, the Naval Reserve Building may offer a level of contextualization similar to the Boneyard environment. Partially renovated warehouse spaces with original architectural details left in place have provided attractive, flexible spaces for contemporary art organizations such as MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. In this era of economic instability, the Neon Museum demonstrates how an institution can grow sustainably without the corporate largesse that may be hard to find in the coming years—by returning to the smaller, simpler foundations upon which museums were built.