Be nice to the docent; he might be made

For Alaskans of my parents' generation, visiting a museum Outside was a formal occasion. A museum was akin to a cathedral, and adults dressed their best and warned their kids to remain on best behavior while they spent an afternoon in the presence of History, Art or Science.

Even the most celebrated museums are less formal now, and in the last 50 years, specialized museums devoted to a single subject have proliferated -- The Tenement Museum in New York, the Shoe Museum in Toronto, the Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wis.

Now Las Vegas has entered the game with the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement -- known on the streets of Sin City as the Mob Museum.

The museum, described by The New York Times as "a $42 million survey of the American gangster" opened on Valentine's Day -- as wags were quick to note, the 83rd anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago. Indeed, part of the brick wall that took bullets Al Capone intended for Bugs Moran is in the museum.

The museum, the Times noted, is careful to emphasize the triumph of law and order over the mobsters and their criminal enterprises. Nevertheless, a museum dedicated to mobsters inevitably follows in the tradition of the tabloid newspapers who warned against the wages of sin on the editorial page and made the criminals larger than life in their news pages.

In the world of the imagination, mobsters play an important fantasy role -- they allow us, for a few moments anyway, to live beyond the rules.

You can't grow up American without knowing the origins of "make him an offer he can't refuse." "The Godfather" was so culturally pervasive that when Alfred E. Newman appeared on the cover of Mad Magazine as "The Clodfather" virtually everyone who saw the magazine understood the reference.

Now thanks to the Internet, we can not only refresh our memories of actors portraying mobsters but see the mobsters themselves walking, talking on video tape of yesteryear. For instance, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro whose fame as a mobster went national after Joe Pesci played him in "Casino." Just Google him and you can watch him.

Tony Spilotro is in the Mob Museum too. Maybe he's even in the gift shop on a T-shirt or shot glass. I'll look.

-- Michael Carey