“Las Vegas is the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings nor of trees, but signs.” – Tom Wolfe
To the south east of the United States lies the Mojave Desert, a rain-shadow desert, known to be the driest in the country. Yet from this arid and otherworldly landscape rises an oasis of neon; at night, the radiant glow of colour spills upwards and outwards into the consuming dark of the desert. This place, so antonymous with its surroundings you would be forgiven for rubbing your eyes and taking a second look, is Las Vegas.
The skyline of Las Vegas is ever-changing; as one hotel grows from the dusty earth, another could be waiting, empty, to be returned to the ground from which it grew. And with the new buildings come the lights. A myriad of colours, shapes and sizes glow, pulsate and chase each other along The Strip and Downtown Las Vegas. These signs are a symbolic characteristic of Las Vegas; what would Vegas be without it’s iconic lights?
But what happens with all these emblematic signs after the building is no longer needed? Enter the Neon Museum. This non-profit organisation began back in 1996 to preserve the archetypal landscape of Las Vegas, or at least pieces of it: the signs. Over their 25 years in operation they have rescued many signs from demolition and curated an immense exhibition of over 250 pieces.
Since 2009, eight signs have been restored to their former glory and installed around the city as public artworks, including the Binion’s horseshoe, Caballero on a Palomino and the Silver Slipper.
I first visited Las Vegas in 2002 when I was 10 years old; since, I have visited multiple times. Over the years I saw new hotels springing up along The Strip, and others – unused and scheduled for demolition – not to be there when I would return next. One such hotel that sticks with me is the Sahara, which on my return in 2016 was no longer branded as such. Albeit not demolished, the hotel had been stripped back to its skeleton and renovated into something new, opening as the SLS Las Vegas. Upon writing this I have discovered that if I return to Las Vegas now the hotel would once again be branded the Sahara under a new renovation carried out in 2019. But, I digress.
It was on a trip in 2017 that I visited the Neon Museum. Not knowing entirely what to expect, I joined the tour through the Neon Boneyard to witness Las Vegas’ past and to learn of its metamorphosis through the stories the signs told. It is a fascinating experience to stand in the forest of metal, feeling dwarfed by the towering and somewhat rusting pieces, yet knowing that they could tell some interesting stories.
While in the Boneyard I saw some old familiars. Before me stood the Sahara sign I had seen all those years before; the golden camels supporting the Moroccan-esque writing and depiction of the domed casino building. Not far from here sprawled the vermillion letters of the bygone Stardust hotel – another hotel that I had seen on my early trips. Some would perhaps say it was the designer in me, but these fragments of the past hold strong as a beautiful exhibition, one that I would definitely include on my ‘Top Things to do in Vegas’ list.
An immersive audiovisual experience titled “Brilliant!” is also offered at the museum, that sees projectors revive unrestored or broken signs to relive some of Las Vegas’ past moments. Using flat photography, drone video and 3D photogrammetry each sign was recreated virtually bulb by bulb and tube by tube in Adobe Illustrator.
If you’re ever in Las Vegas for a holiday or passing through on a road trip, the Neon Museum is a must-see. But don’t just take my word for it, go and see for yourself. Just be sure to book your tickets in advance.
To find out more about the museum and what’s on offer visit the Neon Museum website.