Sin City is known for sex, gaming and general hedonism, but Las Vegas’ reputation has not helped the Erotic Heritage Museum.
The off-Strip museum has been plagued by problems with money, leadership and staffing. Founded in 2008, it is on the verge of forever closing its doors.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but that’s the news as of yesterday,” Amanda Morgan said during Saturday’s “Afternoon Delight” variety show.
Morgan teaches human sexuality at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She ran the museum’s special events as an intern while pursuing her doctorate in sexology.
“It’s fun because it created a community,” she said. “I grew incredible friendships because of the show.”
The allure of musicians, magicians and burlesque dancers drew a crowd of about 30 people Saturday. Two audience members with birthdays in January were subjected to public spankings. Any words with double meanings elicited a chorus of giggles.
“We have total freedom,” Morgan said. “It’s First Amendment all the way.”
According to its official description, “The Museum is dedicated to the preservation of great erotic heritage that is typically undervalued, yet is of tremendous importance. The EHM is owned and managed by the Exodus Trust, a nonprofit California Trust that has as its sole purpose to perform educational, scientific and literary functions relating to sexual, emotional, mental and physical health.”
The museum gives discounts to locals, seniors and college students, and it hosts events. Morgan said she hoped Saturday’s show would help the museum re-engage the community further, but beneath the event’s frolicking atmosphere was speculation about impending closure.
The museum’s troubles reached a critical mass after the November death of museum employee Mercedes Zavala, who ran the museum’s outreach efforts. The nonprofit organization depended on her connections in the fetish community to bring in volunteers and visitors.
“She was very fabulous,” Morgan said. “She’s the reason I started wearing flowers in my hair.”
But the museum’s issues started long before Zavala’s passing.
It has never had enough money for any serious marketing, and bad breakups with past directors have included thefts, lawsuits and inappropriate behavior — which must be something, considering that it’s a 24,000-square-foot museum devoted to sex.
Opened in 2008, the nonprofit museum was being billed as a “celebration of the human sexual experience,” designed “to preserve wonders of the erotic imagination,” with a special focus on the American Sexual Revolution.
The museum is located at Industrial and Desert Inn roads, next to Deja Vu Showgirls. The museum’s full name is Harry Mohney’s Erotic Heritage Museum after the developer of the Deja Vu topless chain. Mohney donated the building and is listed as the museum’s “grand patron.”
The museum offers entry through a gift shop or through a Greco-Roman-inspired area designed for weddings and performance pieces. The operators hoped the marble-like area with red velvet beds mirroring each other on either side, phallic columns and nude statues inspired by the ancients would be good for business. But the museum has never been able to get licensed as a wedding chapel.
There is also a sprawling lounge with couches and chairs for reading titillating coffee table books. The Fithian library there is home to hundreds of works related to sexuality. There’s a classic fortune-telling arcade machine, though the role of Zoltar is played by the adult film actor Ron Jeremy.
“Part of the strategy here is to display things people may not have seen before,” said operations manager and curator Jerry Zientara. “It is, of course, entertaining. But it’s also educational.”
The museum currently averages about 35 visitors a day, but “if we doubled our attendance, we could probably edge into the black,” Zientara said.
Zientara holds a PhD in erotology, the study of depictions of love and sex, and lives in San Francisco. Last November he came to Las Vegas to check on the museum, and was drafted to help save it.
“I wasn’t looking for a job,” he said. But he made the mistake of using a phrase like “if I were running the place” in a report on his visit.
Now he works part time archiving donations, fixing exhibits and reorganizing the museum library. He also works as a librarian with the museum’s parent organization, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco.
The institute was formed in 1976 by a team of researchers, including medical doctors, pastors and marriage counselors.
“At that time there was an enormous need for people to learn and understand sexuality,” Zientara said.
The exhibits in the museum range from sexually charged fine art and arousing folk art to vintage pornography and lovemaking paraphernalia.
There are historical artifacts from before the ’70s sexual revolution, and a section devoted to the life’s work of noted Hustler magazine creator Larry Flynt, which includes his famous gold-plated wheelchair.
Another area is devoted to famous movies such as “Deep Throat” and a silent nudie film from 1915. There’s a wall of works that were re-created after being burned by the Nazis during World War II.
The museum’s provocative exterior mural and proximity to a sex shop next door may give the appearance that the nonprofit is just another lurid tourist trap, but its staff take their jobs seriously. At least, what little staff there is.
“If any single individual wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be able to stay open the hours that we do,” said Alex, a doctoral candidate and weekend intern.
Alex asked that his last name not be used because he’s active-duty military and his superiors might not approve.
“It’s really a labor of love. We do it because we really care about sex education,” he said.
“And the artifacts. They really do deserve to be saved.”
The Erotic Heritage Museum’s next — and perhaps last — event is a lingerie and masquerade ball Feb. 15. For additional information, visit www.eroticheritagemuseumlasvegas.com.
Contact reporter Wesley Juhl at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0381. Follow him on Twitter @WesJuhl