Idiosyncratic Desert Museums

by Joe Zentner


It seems that America as a nation has always been in love with the lurid, the odd, the paranormal and the downright weird.  It should come as no surprise that our southwestern desert country is rich in museums and exhibitions that play to our desire to experience the strange and titillating. 


Classically, a museum could be defined as a permanent institution in the service of humanity, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of education and enjoyment, the tangible and sometimes intangible evidence of a people and their environment.  Museums enable people to explore various kinds of collections for inspiration and learning, and they make accessible artifacts that are held in trust for and by society.

The English word “museum,” taken from the Greek mouseton, denotes a place or temple dedicated to the Muses (the patron divinities of the arts in Greek mythology).  The Institute for Philosophy and Research, established in Alexandria by Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I Soter around 280 BC, is considered by scholars to be the world’s first museum.  There are many different types of museums, from very large collections in major cities, to tiny museums covering either a particular location in a general way, or a particular subject.

Of course, museums should also be fun, so here, for your vacationing pleasure, are a few of the Southwest’s more eccentric-minded museums.  Although they may not rank with our National Gallery of Art, or Paris’ Musée du Louvre, or Madrid’s Museo del Prado, they will add seasoning and flavor to your trip across the desert Southwest.

The Liberace Museum 

The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas comprises two buildings.  The first displays a collection of Wladziu Valentino Liberace’s cars and pianos, including a Phantom V Landau Rolls Royce covered with mirror tiles and etched with galloping horses.  The second gallery includes costumes, jewelry and the Liberace family portrait gallery.  Highlights include the gold lamé jacket that began the extravagant costume collection showman Liberace would refer to as “an expensive joke.”

Also featured are the world’s largest rhinestone, a rhinestone-covered Baldwin grand piano, a Mercedes Excalibur automobile covered in Austrian rhinestones, and a black diamond mink coat lined with Austrian rhinestones.  If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that good taste can’t be bought.

Exotic World in Helendale

Almost as sparkly as the Liberace Museum, but somehow more wholesome, Exotic World in Helendale, California is dedicated to the preservation of the golden age of burlesque when exotic dancing included extravagant costumes and playful choreography.  It contains striptease and exotic dance memorabilia, including posters, photos and costumes, complete with G-strings, worn by such famous performers as Blaze Starr and Chesty “Double Agent 73” Morgan.

Julia C. Bulette Red Light Museum

If you’ve been on enough family outings to tire somewhat of Old West towns, you may have come to realize that there has been something missing, something as intrinsic to the Wild West mythos as high-noon showdowns—namely, the brothel.  The Julia C. Bulette Red Light Museum in Virginia City, Nevada, fills this void with photographs, dioramas and other exhibits detailing the life of Madam Bulette and her brothel.  The museum features some not-to-be-missed artifacts, including a lipstick tube condom case and an antique vibrator.

Texas Prison Museum

It’s all in the execution, I suppose.  In display cases topped with razor wire, the Texas Prison Museum, located near Huntsville, features a billy club (baton), a ball and chain, and an authentic “Death Row” baseball cap.  It also has nasty-looking knives made by inmates, a Thompson submachine gun formerly used by guards, and a photo gallery of prison gang tattoos.

The museum contains a jail cell, where visitors can pay $3 to get their picture taken wearing a striped prison uniform.  It also has “Ol’ Sparky,” the oak electric chair in which 361 felons were executed between 1924 and 1964.  In the gift shop, visitors can buy a T-shirt that proclaims “PEN STATE: 5-Year, 10-Year, 20-Year and Lifetime Degrees.”

A favorite museum display is the collection of weapons seized from prisoners over the years.  It includes brass knuckles made from razor blades, a shotgun made out of pipes, and a blackjack or bludgeon made by a prisoner who scraped lead paint off the prison walls, painstakingly squeezing it into a tight, heavy ball the size of a plum and then tying the heavy weight inside a sock.

Although it’s located, not in the desert, but in the Piney Woods, you may pass by it on the way to or from the Southwest. 

Wigwam Village

Wigwam Village is an icon of Americana and Route 66, the road made famous among others by author John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.  As Americans took to the highway in the early 1930s, buildings of many creative shapes and sizes formed alongside the road.  Many tourist stops, including curio shops and hamburger stands, appeared in uniquely shaped constructions.  Roadside motels of various styles also made an appearance during this period.  The Wigwam Village was special among them and still is to this day, through its distinctive teepees made of steel and concrete.

The Wigwams’ popularity not only attracted travelers but investors, which led to construction of several more villages.  A total of seven such villages were built, of which today only three still exist, including ones in Holbrook, Arizona, and Rialto, California.  Construction of the California “village” was completed in 1950, and it featured 12 teepee-shaped sleeping accommodations.  As the motel’s popularity grew, an outdoor barbeque pit and kidney-shaped swimming pool were added.  For more information on this uniquely American roadside phenomenon, located at 2728 W.  Foothill Boulevard in Rialto, CA, check out www.wigwammotel.com.

Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park

Near Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park, where Las Vegas began more than 150 years ago, a spring-fed creek flowed through a valley, resulting in an oasis in the Mojave Desert.  Rising from underground aquifers, springs supplied Las Vegas Creek with a year-round supply of water that flowed for several miles before disappearing into the desert.  For thousands of years, the creek was the site of seasonal camps for various groups of native people who hunted the animals and collected wild plants that lived here.  Later, the creek provided early travelers with a welcome place for water and food.  Spaniards called the place “Las Vegas,” or “The Meadows.”

In June 1855, William Bringhurst and 29 fellow Mormon missionaries from Utah arrived at the site and began constructing an adobe fort, the first permanent structure erected in the valley.  The Mormon outpost served as a way station for travelers.

After less than two years, the Mormon abandoned the effort.  In 1865, Octavius Gass bought the site and developed a large ranch that included a store and blacksmith shop to serve travelers and supply produce for nearby mining communities.  In 1881, ownership of the ranch passed to Archibald and Helen Stewart.  Although Archibald was killed in a gunfight in 1884, Helen and her father continued operating the ranch.

In 1902, Helen Stewart sold the ranch and water rights to the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, and a new town, Las Vegas, sprang into existence in 1905, when rails reached the valley.  After the city of Las Vegas was founded, the spring water was diverted into the town’s water system, and the creek largely dried up.  From this place, Las Vegas expanded to become one of the nation’s major metropolitan areas.  Think about that the next time you admire the paintings at Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art.  The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park is located at 500 East Washington Avenue in Las Vegas.

Brothel Art Museum

The community of Crystal, a hamlet located 25 miles north of Pahrump, Nevada, seems to exist for two purposes only—to serve alcohol and provide sexual services.  For years, a hard-to-miss billboard in Pahrump has advertised the Brothel Art Museum, the “Louvre of Libido,” as “the only museum of its kind in the world!”

To get there, I drove 68 miles west of Las Vegas before seeing a billboard giving directions to the free museum, then drove another 25 miles north on State Route 160.  The placard features a red-haired woman with bare shoulders, drawn in an art nouveau style that hints there may indeed be “art” to be found here.  Despite being told by knowledgeable Nevada insiders that the Brothel Art Museum is merely a come-on for the brothels in Crystal, a marketing tool to snare visitors under the guise of cultural purposes, I soldiered on.

The Brothel Art Museum lines the wall of a bar adjacent to the long-closed Cherry Patch Ranch Brothel.  A sign indicated the museum was open but the lone car parked out front suggested I wouldn’t be able to find anonymity among throngs of other art lovers.  Mostly, it’s hundreds of old newspaper clippings shellacked and mounted on wood.  Photos lining the walls are of Hollywood stars and country singers.

Bartender Kevin Kerns – it would be a bit much to call him a museum curator – indicates that the collection disappoints some but rivets others.  Kerns described one East Coast patron who came out solely for the purpose of seeing the “attraction.”  Soon after arriving, he declared: “I can’t believe I came all the way out here from Maryland to see this crap.”  Which comment about sums up the situation.

Diversions

I could (believe me) go on, but surely by now you get the point.  The Southwest is filled with many one-of-a-kind oddball museums and exhibits that appeal to all tastes.  Visiting such places is probably healthy in that they take one’s mind off, at least temporarily, such matters as a never-ending war, improvised explosive devices, a root canal, receding hairlines, the Internal Revenue Service, inscrutable politicians, and trying to figure out who is not running for President of the United States.


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