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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Exclusive Interview: Mark Hall-Patton, History Expert Featured on Pawn Stars

Mark Hall-Patton. Source: .

By Aaron S. Robertson

The administrator of the Clark County Museum discusses his love for learning, the show’s origins and what it’s like working on it, Howard Hughes, advice for those looking to enter the profession, classic rock, and so much more.

Imagine this: You’ve been a museum administrator for many years, just going about your life and work. The role alone doesn’t carry any kind of celebrity status. On the contrary, it’s, for the most part, a pretty quiet, stable, behind-the-scenes, everyday kind of professional job. Until a couple of TV producers come to your town (Las Vegas) with a great idea, albeit, no pun intended, a gamble. Actually, it’s a little more complicated - we’ll get to that shortly.

That’s exactly the fortune that befell Mark Hall-Patton when an idea formed for a TV show that would bring together a love for history, collectibles, rare artifacts, and interesting trivia with the oldest form of credit here in the U.S. - the art of the pawn deal. Of course, I’m talking none other than the now world-famous show, Pawn Stars, now entering its fifth year.

But in the beginning, Mark, who has come to be affectionately known as “the beard of knowledge”, was actually very skeptical about the show’s future. “I thought a show about people coming into a pawn shop would not be interesting,” Mark told me during our roughly 90-minute conversation by phone on May 27 from his office at the Clark County Museum. It is my second interview with a Pawn Stars expert (see my interview with Rebecca Romney from early last year).

And to be fair here and give credit where credit is certainly due, the show’s origins are actually more complex. “Well, the show was actually Rick [Harrison]’s idea,” Mark explained, adding, “Rick is the one who really had the vision, who saw the potential. He pursued it. Even the Old Man [father Richard] thought it was a dumb idea. Rick talked to HBO, but HBO had different ideas for it. He then took it to Leftfield Pictures, which is the producer of the show,” and the rest is, again no pun intended here, history. Okay, it was intended.

As for Mark’s role, he goes back to the very beginning, having appeared in a pilot episode. “I still don’t know all the details of how my name came up,” he noted. He was doing a show for the local access channel at the time, when, one day, he received a call asking him if he’d come down to the pawn shop to take a look at a military jacket. “I told them I couldn’t offer a value. I don’t appraise items,” he recalled, noting that he was never in the appraisal business and doesn’t follow market values. They went ahead with the filming anyway, and Mark has been invited back ever since to offer his expertise on a wide array of artifacts. And his appearances on the show have paid big dividends for the museum system he oversees.

“We as experts on the show are not paid anything. You do it for the publicity,” Mark told me. The result of all this publicity? “Attendance has increased 66% over the last two years. And they come from all over, including many from out of the country. All over the world. You name it.” To that point, the show itself is now shown in 151 countries and dubbed into over 30 languages. “A lot of kids watch the show, and they’ll drag their parents out to the museum because they want to meet me,” Mark explained. And if you happen to go out there when he’s not around, you can have your picture taken beside the life-size cutout bearing his image.

Asked what his method or best practices are for constantly taking in new information and acquiring new knowledge, seeing as how there never seems to be enough time in a day, Mark told me, “I’ve been asked similar questions, and to be honest, I don’t have a good answer for that. I’m always reading five or six books at the same time. I like learning. I like research. I do all my own research. I like writing articles that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other. I usually have a few articles I’m working on simultaneously in my briefcase. If something’s interesting, I’m curious about it.” He went on to add, “Most of the time, there’s a book in my hand, even while waiting in a dentist’s chair or at a doctor’s office. For me, I don’t really see it as time management. I just have a running list that I work off of, and I just tackle those items.”

Along similar lines, Mark really couldn’t come up with an answer for what a usual day is like for him. “I don’t know what a typical day would look like,” he said with a laugh, continuing, “I oversee three museums, and anything can come up. The show has definitely increased requests to look at artifacts. It has led me to spend more time in the gift shop, meeting visitors and taking pictures with them. Aside from all of that, the usual reports, research, managerial duties.”

Howard Hughes
A young Howard Hughes.
We got into talking about Howard Hughes a little bit. I told Mark that I’ve been fascinated with Hughes’ life and work ever since seeing 2004’s The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the brilliant and famously reclusive industrialist, aviator, movie producer, and just all-around innovator. In fact, I did a couple of papers and presentations on Hughes in college. Mark quickly responded, “Don’t rely on that film, though. I went to see it just to find out everything that was wrong with it.”

The conversation about Hughes was prompted by me asking Mark what he could tell me about Hughes’ stay in, and influence on, Las Vegas. Were there any artifacts or spots dedicated to his life and work in the area, either in the museums or in the more touristy, commercial settings, I wondered? “There is no Hughes property out here now,” Mark told me, explaining that his companies were broken up and absorbed into other businesses over the years following his death in 1976. “There is a house behind Channel 8 here that was owned by him. Whether or not he actually used it, though, is highly doubtful.” Mark told me something that I wasn’t really aware of in my own research on Hughes over the years - “He was instrumental in getting Nevada to allow corporations to own casinos, which, as we know, completely changed the landscape.”

Mark continued on Hughes: “I’ve lectured about him. I knew people who knew him, and they liked him. But he was so brilliant, that he was off. If you’re not discussing something these kind of people find interesting, they’re gone. You’ve lost them. They’re off thinking about something else.”

We also briefly discussed the hotly-debated subject of pre-Columbian expeditions, a topic that my colleague Kyle is interested in exploring. “I’ve read some of the literature on it. Some of that is documented well enough where I think we can say, ‘Yes, it happened.’ Theories surrounding the Japanese are problematic. It is an interesting area. But I’m not an expert. There is a lot out there for those interested. Check out some of the archaeological publications.”

Having served on my city’s library board for a number of years now, I was wondering if museums find themselves faced with questions of relevancy today. I know that, across the library profession and industry, those discussions are taking place all the time - essentially, how do we remain relevant today in such a technologically-advanced world?

“In ways, similar questions are being asked, yes. We’re both in the informal education business. One of the things we tend to do in both is grab onto technology as a savior of what we want to be,” Mark said, adding, “We sometimes lose sight of the fact that technology is merely a tool. And if you lose sight of what your original purpose was, you’re losing what you can provide. You can’t control what it is someone is going to want in books. You can’t control what it is someone will take away from your exhibit. But your visitors will teach you what they want, if you listen.” He went on to explain that, for museums, “What we provide is a place where people can connect with real artifacts. There’s real stuff in museums. And kids understand the difference between real and unreal. They know there’s a big difference between seeing an artifact of some sort on TV, which is nothing more than a bunch of pixels on a screen, and being up close and personal with the real deal.”

I was curious to know what Mark particularly enjoys discussing himself, seeing as how he is quite the expert in a wide range of fields. “I’m really fascinated by bridges and bridge engineering. It’s a subject I enjoy lecturing on. Learning how they’re made has always captured my interest. Beyond that, I would say obscure history and mining history in the West. The nice thing about history is that you can specialize in everything relating to XYZ, or you can learn a little bit about everything.”

His advice for those thinking about entering the profession: “Get your M.A. You’ll need your master’s. And volunteering. You’ll need a master’s these days to go far in the profession, but the degree itself won’t really teach you how to run a museum. That’s where volunteering comes in. Get out there, get into the field while you’re working on your degree. In the next 10-15 years, you’ll see a wholesale turnover in museums because of retirements. At least in history museums anyway, art museums are a little different.” He continued, “You won’t get rich working for museums, but it is a lot of fun. I truly love my work, and I can say I’m genuinely happy to come in every day after all these years.”

We discussed music a little bit, mostly classic rock. Many of my interviews these past few years have been with musicians from the 60’s and 70’s era, including Doug Clifford and Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). “My son loves classic rock and is a big CCR fan,” Mark told me. “He brought his music to Afghanistan while serving with the Nevada National Guard. The Afghans he worked with over there loved the music!” Mark also shared with me that his brother, Mike, was the bass player for the Middle Class.

Like Rebecca Romney, Mark hasn’t been to Milwaukee yet. But he did at least step foot in the state. “I drove across the bridge one time from Woodbury, Minnesota into Wisconsin while visiting relatives in Minnesota. And I applied for a director’s job in Green Bay many years ago. I remember being told during the interview it was necessary to be a Green Bay Packers fan. I thought, ‘Uh…okay,’” he said with a laugh.

As for final thoughts, “Come by the museum when you’re here, and go visit your local museum! And I hope you like the show!”

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