Museums and tourists typically go hand in hand, but here in Las Vegas, the Natural History Museum is busier with locals than out-of-town visitors.
Next to Cashman Field and in the heart of the emerging cultural corridor, the museum at 900 Las Vegas Blvd. North offers a bright harbor from the city’s noise and neon, as well as a chance for children to see things that will widen their eyes. I’m no kid, but even I was wowed by a tour from Executive Director Marilyn Gillespie and fundraiser Deanna Ackerman.
We first encountered a section on parasites, this year’s traveling exhibit. Let me tell you: Parasites look a little unsettling when they’re magnified to human size.
“Kids love it,” Ackerman noted.
We moved on to a stunning display of a lion frozen in the act of attacking a wildebeest. The piece was constructed by a taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution.
Some 30,000 Clark County students gape at such displays annually. For many, it’s their first time in a museum.
We passed by a tank with a swimming shark and some rays before encountering Bonnie, an 11-foot Burmese python, the same species disrupting the Florida ecosystem. She was rescued from a closet eight years ago and could grow to be 25 feet. Her original mate, Clyde, died last year. She’s now pursuing a relationship with a younger, smaller male named Boots, who was asleep in a corner. I wished him luck.
We then approached exhibits on fossils and extinct animals, which I found particularly fascinating.
“The kids in the community call us the dinosaur museum,” said Gillespie, who has served as the museum’s director since before it opened in 1991. “We have the only exhibit in the state that talks about early man.”
One of the more popular and striking exhibits is the 5,000-square-foot “Treasures of Egypt,” a gallery of scenes and re-creations from ancient Egypt, including a replica of King Tut’s tomb. I was impressed by a display that allows visitors to perform a virtual CT scan on a mummy.
“It’s the first use of this technology in the United States,” Gillespie said with pride.
The exhibits were bolstered by donations from the Luxor, which gave the museum several replica items.
As the tour wrapped up, we walked up to a display of a Mayan calendar. It looked impossible to decipher. Indeed, Gillespie pointed out that misinterpretations had led some people to believe that the world would end Dec. 21. Gillespie said the predictions were misguided.
“The Maya never said it was the end of the world,” she said.
I left thankful for that, as well as what I had learned: The Natural History Museum is a place that strives to help locals understand and appreciate the world’s wildlife, ecosystems and cultures.
Incidentally, tourists are welcome, too.