GANGSTER MUSEUM OF AMERICA

Gangster Museum of AmericaThis is the entry to the Gangster Museum of America, just up Central Avenue from Al Capone's old digs at the Arlington Hotel. The museum chronicles the history of Hot Springs as gangland's open city in the 1930's and 1940's. It was a place where gangsters didn't behave like gangsters. The local politicians and businessmen handled the booze and gambling and all the big city crime figures agreed that there would be no trouble in Hot Springs.

That arrangement came to an end after the Second World War, when returning G.I.'s decided to run for public office on an anti-corruption platform. It was also about that time that the big city gangsters were building hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, so the changes at Hot Springs simply sent more business to their own enterprises in Nevada.

The museum opened its doors just this season. About half of the museum consists of audiovisual displays and narrations of the stories of figures various and nefarious. The rest is an assortment of antique gaming devices and period weapons. It's one of those ideas that seems obvious in retrospect, that this would be a great subject for a local museum. Every year there's a new art gallery pretty much like all the rest of the art galleries. Every year there's a new restaurant not so different from the one that closed last year. Every year there's a new gift shop pretty much like all the others. Then finally here comes something truly novel. Something nobody's tried before.

Some of the exhibits are hands-on, which is always a plus for a museum. I got to pull the arm of a 1940's slot machine, took a spin at the roulette wheel, and at the end of the tour they let me handle a legally disabled tommy gun. I'm sure they've got security camera footage of me looking about as comfortable with a gun as Patty Hearst.

On top of all that fun they've given themselves a subject that can expand in a number of different directions. They could set up one room as a speakeasy--an exhibit during the day hosting private parties at night. They could solicit exhibits from the FBI's artifact collection to set up a Gangbuster Room in the Gangster Museum. They could have rotating exhibits on bandit gangs like the Barrows or the Barkers. When you visit this place you'll think of a hundred ideas of things they might eventually include to encourage visitors to make return trips.

Admission is eight bucks. Self-guided tour, time limited by length of recorded exhibits. 113 Central Avenue. Phone 501-318-1717.

RTJ--8/2/2008


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