To understand the history of the Nevada State Museum, explains Bob Nylen, the museum’s curator of history, you need to first understand the history of the U.S. Mint in Carson City. It began operation in 1870 and ran until 1893.
In 1899 it was converted to a U.S. Assay office that remained in operation until the 1930s. When it closed, it was put up for sale.
“Judge Clark Guild took a Sunday walk, picked up his mail at what is now the Laxalt Building, and saw the ‘for sale’ sign,” Nylen said. “He got upset. He could see the writing on the wall, the building was considered a blight. He had a vision right away of making it into a museum.”
The Nevada State Museum opened on Nevada Day, Oct. 31, 1941.
Nylen moved to Nevada from Riverside, Ill., to attend the University of Nevada, Reno. After a stint at the Nevada Historical Society, he started as a museum registrar in 1984 and became the curator of history in 1989. As such, he manages the historic collection and history education. He also gives tours, but one of his most important jobs is sharing his historic knowledge.
“I’ve literally had thousands of people call me over my 32 years asking questions about Nevada history,” Nylen said. “I’m really a resource to people who are residents of the state and out of the state as well.”
Nylen moves around the museum as effortlessly as someone in his own home. Every artifact has a story he tells with enthusiasm — from the silver tobacco box, a relic of a baseball rivalry between Carson and Virginia cities, to G.S. Garcia’s most famous saddle made in 1904.
“I get so excited and interested in history when you learn the details about the people — how they contributed, or even the tragedies — it brings it to life,” he said. “Things just jump out at me.”
He even feels a connection to the building itself.
“Every day I walk up and down these stairs, I think about how this was the main staircase used to go up and down in the mint,” he said. “Abe Curry was the superintendent of the mint until 1871. His office was upstairs.”
The exhibits trace the transition to cars from the horse and buggy, and some of the growing pains in between.
“One of my favorite stories from the time was about the speeding laws, which were probably around 10 mph,” Nylen recounted. “Sometimes the sheriff had to chase them down on a horse to give them a ticket.”
Nevada’s diversity — including Native Americans, Basque, Chinese and Latinos — is also showcased in the museum.
“People often underestimate the role of the immigrants in Nevada history,” Nylen said. “In the 19th Century, we had the largest percentage of people who came here to settle.”
The ghost town and mining exhibit are two of the oldest.
“They were created with such love,” he said. “So much thought went into making that basement mine be a top-level exhibit.”
His contribution to that display was personal.
“Those are my jeans,” he said, gesturing to the mannequin of the prospector at the entrance of the old mine. “Those have been on this exhibit since 1985 when it opened.”
His pants, he said, were a small sacrifice for the good of the museum, which in turn is good for the community.
“People have been lost to history. We need to bring it back,” he said. “It might impact how we approach things now.
“Look at this museum, it all got started with somebody’s dream on a Sunday morning.”