Marilyn Gillespie, founding director of the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, has typically needed only one succinct phrase to explain the challenge of running a museum in a small, landlocked space with little room for expansion: “Dinosaurs with an 11-foot ceiling.”
So it’s a testament to her endurance and creative thinking that when the Bureau of Land Management needed a repository for nearly 800 boxes of artifacts—homeless since UNLV’s Harry Reid Center removed them four years ago—the Natural History Museum could accommodate the collection.
It turns out that while the artifacts were in temporary storage in Carson City, the Natural History Museum acquired an extra 10,000 feet of space across the street from its facility on Las Vegas Boulevard—a considerable opportunity given that the museum had been operating with only 40,000 square feet, and only a sliver of that for collecting. The expansion, following accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in 2013, made the Natural History Museum available as a federal repository for artifacts found in or returning to Nevada.
“This was literally a crisis,” says Bryan Hockett, lead archaeologist and deputy preservation officer for the Nevada BLM. “UNLV said, ‘We can’t support the space anymore. You need to leave.’ We had been searching for another facility to curate these. [The Natural History Museum] is a facility set up to meet the requirements and has the best intentions for the collection.” And its new space is being outfitted with the support of grants from the BLM and City of Las Vegas.
For a museum that launched 24 years ago without a collection, the recent chain of events has been monumental—elevating its status, some might say. “Part of what museums do is collect for posterity,” Gillespie says. “We were to the point where we were turning down things. Our goal is to be able to have a research facility. It’s going to be a brand-new program for us. The collection sent down here represents 40 years of artifacts by different archeologists that represent 10,000 years.”