Today, the Neon Museum, which also includes a seemingly endless collection of ephemera and even one historic building, is just a short drive up the glittering Las Vegas Boulevard from behemoth hotels like The Flamingo, Caesar’s Palace, and Luxor. Zakri describes her city’s geography like most Las Vegans, in terms of proximity to the nearest big-name casino. The museum, for its part, is closest to the El Cortez, a hotel illuminated, fittingly, with a garland of neons: the cursive “El Cortez Hotel,” a series of smaller signs advertising “Cocktails” and “Floor Shows,” and a vertical arrow decorated with the all-caps “GAMBLING.”
But more than El Cortez or its much glitzier counterparts further down the road, it’s the Neon Museum that arguably houses Vegas’s most prized cultural treasures—time capsules chock-full of history, from the pop cultural to the political. “Design-wise, we have examples of everything you can think of,” explains Zakri. “We’ve tried to collect a wide array so that people can experience the full scope of signage that they might come across in their daily lives and understand that there’s a purpose and story behind every little bit of it. It’s the stories that really fascinate visitors.”
Indeed, a tour through the Neon Museum is not only a tour through the history of signage, but also of the aesthetics of advertising and American culture itself. A large portion of its collection, some of which dates clear back to the mid-1930s, is stacked in the museum’s outdoor gallery, affectionately dubbed the “Boneyard.” The signs come together in an exuberant maze that dwarfs visitors with letters, armatures, and luminescent objects as tall as 40 feet. It’s within this labyrinth that Liberace and Elvis roam, “keeping the critters at bay,” as Zakri explains, and occasionally sunning themselves on the collection’s crown jewels.