The Mob Museum in Las Vegas is a repository of the extraordinary and unexpected.
The actual wall that caught the bullets from the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre is there.
So is the hazmat suit Bryan Cranston wore in his role as Walter White in the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad.”
A larger-than-life Dick Tracy cutout, complete with yellow hat and drawn Colt .45, stands guard over one of the exhibits, a pixelated reminder that crime does not pay.
But the capper, the big surprise?
Against all odds, even in a betting town, two public history majors from Appalachian State University – 2,500 miles to the east – discovered each other working just two cubicles apart.
Carolyn Fisher ’07 is the curator of collections for the museum. On her first day at work a colleague introduced her to the museum’s education manager, pointing out that like Fisher, she majored in public history. When Fisher asked where she had studied, Diana Rafferty ’11 replied, “Oh, Appalachian State. It’s in a little town in the North Carolina mountains. You probably never heard of it.”
Las Vegas Mob Museum is a repository of the extraordinary and unexpected. The actual wall that caught the bullets from the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre is there. So is the hazmat suit Bryan Cranston wore in his role as Walter White in the hit AMC series “Breaking Bad.” A larger-than-life Dick Tracy cutout, complete with yellow hat and drawn Colt .45, stands guard over one of the exhibits, a pixelated reminder that crime does not pay. But the capper, the big surprise? Against all odds, even in a betting town, two public history majors from Appalachian State University – 2,500 miles to the east – discovered each other working just two cubicles apart.
Carolyn Fisher: The Mob Museum was opened in February 2012. February 14, actually, on the anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. We’ve been open for four years now. So this building was completed in 1933. It’s one of the few historic buildings in Las Vegas. It used to be the Federal courthouse and the post office, actually, so a lot of very interesting trials happened here.
Diana Rafferty: This building was supposed to close down and be demolished, but they gave the option to the city to buy it for a dollar as long as they could renovate it and make it something cultural. And they thought originally that they might want to do an art museum until Oscar Goodman stepped in and said, “You know what we should do? We should do a mob museum.” Oscar Goodman used to be a mob lawyer, and it made a lot of sense to put something like the Mob Museum in a town that the mob built.
CF: We have exhibits about organized crime and law enforcement, and it’s not just a focus on Las Vegas. It’s really the national story. The mob story is the American story. It’s U.S. history told through organized crime. It’s been present here since the beginning. We’ve been extremely popular since our opening. We’ve had over a million visitors in just those four years. And it’s really neat to have a museum about the mob and Vegas history, and all of these things happened in such a historic place.
CF: Alright, so my job here at the Mob Museum is curator of collections, which is a pretty cool title, and it’s a pretty cool job. I get to work with all of the stuff within the cases. These are the artifacts, the historic objects. The longer story is that I manage both the intellectual property rights for all of the artifacts, as well as the physical well being of them. So it’s kind of two-fold on that. A typical day could be anything from making up a loan agreement, or it could be something a little more exciting like getting into a case and cleaning an object, or acquiring something new for the collection. And we’re always growing our collection here at the Mob Museum. You never know what’s going to happen, and it’s very exciting.
DR: Well, I am the education manager here at the Mob Museum. I train and maintain my staff of educators, and I do a lot of research here. I do a lot of research within the building, but also outside of the text that’s on the walls. We have to address a lot of issues here. Everything from immigration and prohibition to what’s happening today. Like, for example, we’re going to be putting in an El Chapo exhibit here in another couple of days actually. So we’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on, and I’m involved with a lot of it. Not to mention guided tours that we offer every day. We have a lot of fun doing it, and every tour is different. We’ve specifically designed the guided tours so that every person who is giving a guided tour does their own take on the guided tour. Everybody’s interested in different things, and you’re a better tour guide if you’re passionate about what you’re talking about. So we’ve specifically designed it as a skeleton that each individual guide gets to flesh out on their own. I was a tour guide back in North Carolina. When I was in high school I worked for the Newbold-White House and was a docent there, and I have loved being a tour guide ever since. It’s one of the things that got me really interested, really passionate about working in museums as opposed to working in a classroom. And as far as choosing history as a major, I knew…I’ve known since I was tiny child that I was going to be a history major when I was in college. Some of my earliest memories are reading history books.
CF: People have this misconception, I think, that you can’t get a job with history, that history is a useless degree, and it’s absolutely a myth. Public history has opened so many doors for me. There’s never been a point since I graduated in 2007 that I haven’t been able to find employment within the history field. I absolutely love what I do. And I’m very excited that public history provided the opportunity for me to work in this field.
DR: You learn more about humanity, and you learn more about the way people work when you study history than anything else I’ve ever studied. But even if you don’t want to stick with history and work in a classroom or work in a museum, it can be a jumping point towards being a lawyer, or being an activist, or being a politician. It can be great for all kinds of things, because if you can’t study history, if you can’t understand how history works, how humanity works, then you’re not going to do very well understanding current events. And seeing the way history and current events collide, so to speak, they’re not separate things. They’re definitely the same…different sides to the same coin, or different sides of the continuum, so to speak. It allowed me to see that I don’t have to study history and stay in the past. I can study history and still keep looking forward.
CF: I grew up all over the world actually. My family moved a lot. I lived in Florida a couple times, Texas, Pennsylvania. But I actually lived overseas in Singapore for six years, from when I was twelve to eighteen. And then when I was eighteen I went to Appalachian State University and just fell in love with everything about the town, about the university. I just knew that it was the place that I wanted to be. So I decided that Boone would be my hometown, and that that would be the first place I would pick to live and make it where I’m from. So I tell people “Boone” now. That’s where I’m from.
DR: I’m a military kid. I was the kid of a Coastguardsman. I’m originally from Alaska. We’ve moved a lot in my time, being a military kid that’s common. So Alaska to North Carolina and back…and back again. I ended up going to high school at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, North Carolina. And then choosing App…this is the first time…when I went to App was the first time I was able to choose where I moved to, and it was something that was important to me. So I made a choice to go to Appalachian, and it’s been wonderful. Making that choice was probably the best choice of my life. It helped me develop who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for App, and the people that I met there…the best friends I’ve ever had I’d met at App. The best mentors I’ve ever had, I’ve had at App. If I had gone anywhere else, I would be a very different person, I think.
CF: So I started at the Mob Museum in June 2012. It was a couple months after the museum had first opened, and I was meeting all of my new coworkers, and one of them said, “Oh, you studied public history? We’ve got another girl that studied public history. Here! Come meet Diana.” And I meet Diana, and I’m like, “Oh where did you study public history?” And she goes, “Oh, you’ve probably haven’t heard of it. It’s a small school up in the mountains of North Carolina.” No way? Really? Oh, Appalachian State? And it was just like a reunion right there, and I was like “Me too! Appalachian State!” I don’t know what your reaction was. You looked like you didn’t believe me.
DR: It’s such a small school, and I’m out here in the middle of the desert, 2,500 miles away from Boone, but as soon as we both realized that we’d both been to App together, actually at the same time. Although we didn’t know it. I was a freshman when she was a senior…it was shocking. I really couldn’t believe it. Oh my gosh. There’s somebody else who…we went to the same university. We went through the same program. We had some of the same professors. Gosh, 2,500 miles away from home and here we are, two cubicles away from each other.
CF: So we definitely bonded right away about being both public history students and being Appalachian Alumni.
DR: When Carolyn and I met here at the Mob Museum it was an immediate connection for us, having both been to Appalachian. Whereas, we might not have made that immediate friendship otherwise. I still connect with App alums all around the country, so when people come in, if I happen to see someone from Boone there’s an immediate friendship. Whether we knew each other or not before there’s an immediate friendship.
CF: You know, there’s just a connection there, I think, back to the Appalachian community no matter where you are. And it’s really great to have that, and it’s just such a bonding experience to have been a part of such a great university and a great little town.
“How does that happen?,” Fisher asked, practically squealing. “There are millions of museums and we are miles and miles away from Boone.” The Boone connection was an immediate bond between Fisher and Rafferty. Now it’s part of their ritual to share coffee on Friday afternoons and reminisce about Appalachian and the Boone community. In a series of interviews about their careers and work at the Mob Museum, they spoke repeatedly about their allegiance to the university, appreciation for the professors who introduced them to public history and their mutual love for the Boone community.
The Appalachian impact
Fisher grew up all over the world, she said. “We moved a lot. Florida, Texas, overseas in Singapore.” When family members from Charlotte suggested she tour the university, she thought, “‘Why not?’ I fell in love with everything about the town. I decided Boone would be my home, where I’d tell people I was from.”
For Rafferty, who also moved a great deal, Boone was the first place she was able to choose to live. “Appalachian helped me learn about myself,” she said. “I had access to performances – ballet, opera, things in culture I never had before. My history classes were phenomenal. Dr. Joe Gonzalez taught me a class on the civil rights movement. I credit him for many of the opinions I have on the world today. Dr. Tim Silver changed my perspective on my country and where I stand. Dr. Richard McGarry was a mentor. He was actually here not long ago. He watched me as a college student and it was good to have him see what I’ve become. I’ve become the person I wanted to be – post App.”
You can get a job with a history major
Fisher stumbled on public history by accident. She had planned to be a teacher but explored several other majors. She saw a description for public history while scrolling online through a list of Appalachian majors. “Wait,” she said, recalling her excitement. “I didn’t know this was an option. Get a job where you could do historic preservation or archeology or work in museums? I took a historic preservation class and that was when I knew I’d made the right choice. There is a misconception that history is a useless degree. Public history has opened so many doors for me.”
Rafferty, agreed, saying history is a great stepping stone. “You learn about humanity and the way people work when you study history. You can go on to be a lawyer, an activist, a politician,” she said. “It’s great for all kinds of things. (Without knowledge of history) you can’t understand how humanity works, you won’t understand current events. History and current events collide. You don’t have to study history and stay in the past. You can study history and still look forward.”
Rafferty had planned to live in Las Vegas after graduation. She learned about the Mob Museum while still in college and kept her eye out for openings there. “My path was direct,” she said. “I knew the museum was a place I could work with my degree. It was just about to open when I moved there. Within a year I was program associate and within three, education manager.”
As teaching manager, Rafferty is responsible for hiring and training a staff of educators. She oversees summer camps and outreach programs. “I also do a lot of research within the building but also outside of the text that’s on the wall. We address a lot of issues, everything from immigration and prohibition and what’s happening today. I translate what’s traditionally been in the world of academics into something everyone can understand.”
A cool title, a cool job
Fisher’s path was slightly less direct. While at Appalachian, she earned two internships with The Student Conservation Association. For more than five years after graduation she bounced back and forth across the country, working in various positions at seven different national parks. She was a museum technician in Death Valley when she applied for the job at the Mob Museum. “It was a perfect case of being at the right place at the right time,” she said.
“Curator of the collection is a pretty cool title – and a pretty cool job,” Fisher said. “I get to work with all of the stuff, the artifacts. I have keys to the cases! That’s the short story. The longer story is I manage intellectual property rights and the physical well being of the artifacts. My typical day could be from making up a loan agreement, a deed of gift, tracking down inventories for objects, or something more exciting like getting into a case and cleaning an artifact, or acquiring something new for the collection We are always growing our collection.”
Why a Mob Museum?
The Mob Museum opened Feb. 14, 2012, the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and has had more than one million visitors in the four years since. The building, a 1933 courthouse and post office, was purchased from the city for one dollar. Oscar Goodman, former Las Vegas mayor and organized crime defense attorney, championed the idea of a Mob Museum. “It’s one of the few historic buildings in Las Vegas,” Fisher said. “Normally we knock down our buildings and put up something new.“
What’s the attraction, we asked, why is this type of museum important? Rafferty was quick to reply: “I tell our staff, if we aren’t dealing with how history impacts us today, we’re not doing it right. Prohibition informs our drug laws today. RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws are still on the books. What happened in ancient Rome, happens here today. Crime still happens. We need to learn to avoid it, or to fix it. Fittingly, a recent installation is a replica of the prison cell belonging to El Chapo, the Mexican drug trafficker, who twice escaped from high security prisons.”
“History is telling stories,” Fisher added. “Whether we’re on a tour or restoring an artifact, our job is to tell that story… and show what it means to (a person’s) life now and those before us, and after us. Las Vegas has deep roots in organized crime and organized crime was responsible for the development of law enforcement. But the story is bigger than Las Vegas,” Fisher said. “The story of mob history is the story of American history.”
In recognition of Breaking Bad, a modern-day saga of organized crime, The Mob Museum will ... debut a permanent display of a yellow hazmat suit worn by series star Bryan Cranston — in scenes where Walter White was cooking meth — plus a pair of gas masks and a rubber apron used in the show.
- The Mob Museum - The Mob Museum, officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, is a history museum located in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada.
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