U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith Fights for Funding

After several bumpy years, the U.S. Marshals Museum project in Fort Smith is starting to gain traction.

The $50 million project, to be situated on the banks of the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith, was first proposed in 2008.

“I think they probably picked the worst time since the Great Depression to embark on fundraising,” said Joe David Rice, tourism director at the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.

Now, the project is fundraising at the state level and is preparing to campaign nationally. It recently passed the $10 million mark. The Melanie Holt Speer Foundation made a $200,000 gift in mid-February.

“We feel like we’ve done very well,” said Jessica Hayes, the museum’s vice president. She said the museum didn’t have a groundbreaking date, but donations were on track.

Steve Rucker, president of the Arkansas Museums Association, agreed that the project had a rocky start but he was also confident it could succeed.

“Typically, the first 50 percent or 60 percent of fundraising is the difficult part,” he said. “Once the money’s in the bag, people see you’re serious about opening the museum and are more willing to give out money. It’s going to have to be a national fundraising effort.”

“If you look around, Fort Smith is kind of like Pine Bluff in that it’s always been a community of overachievers,” Rice added. “With time, they’ll meet the goal, get the ground broken and get the museum up and running.”

Bringing It Home

Fort Smith beat out several other cities to be the location of the museum. Hayes said the story goes back to 1989, when the Smithsonian Institution was traveling the country with an exhibit on the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service.

At the end of the exhibit’s travels, the U.S. Marshals Service partnered with a state park in Laramie, Wyo., to create a permanent museum. It closed in the early 2000s.

“Around 2005, the then-director of the U.S. Marshals Service, John Clark, really wanted to get a museum going again, one that was specifically about the Marshals Service,” Hayes said.

Clark put out a call for applications, Hayes said, and he ended up with more than a dozen cities interested in hosting the museum. It was then narrowed down to Fort Smith and Staunton, Va.

Fort Smith’s frontier history gave it an edge over Staunton.

“When Fort Smith was a bastion of the wilderness, it was often known as ‘Hell on the Border,’” Hayes said. “Numerous outlaws passed through Fort Smith on the way to Indian Territory, and once they were there, other than a federal marshal, no law enforcement could arrest them.”

Hayes said the Fort Smith community was highly supportive of the project, with the campaign motto being “Bring It Home.”

But with the city’s choice as the museum’s home came nothing else. A group of planners in Fort Smith soon formed a nonprofit and board for fundraising purposes. During the recession, the board focused more on publicity.

“I started calling the museum — I guess a couple of years ago — a museum without walls,” Hayes said. “For a lot of people, museums are really about more than just coming and looking at stuff.”

Hayes said the museum started offering public programming to help future visitors understand and experience a bit of what the museum would be when it opened.

For example, in 2010, the museum collaborated with some other organizations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the integration of schools in New Orleans, with which the U.S. marshals were involved.

“The overall vision is that we will use the stories of the U.S. Marshals Service to give people really a different look at our nation’s history and explore American history through the lens of the Marshals Service. In the end, their role and their job are all integrally connected to the Constitution.”

Badge on the River

The design for the 20,000-SF museum was created by both Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock and Cambridge Seven Associates of Cambridge, Mass. The pair previously collaborated on the Heifer International Education Center in Little Rock.

Reese Rowland of Polk Stanley Wilcox said the overall design of the museum was inspired by a marshal’s badge stuck in the ground. He said it takes inspiration from a scene at the end of “High Noon” when Gary Cooper, playing Marshal Will Kane, removes his badge and flings it to the ground.

“He’s done his job,” Rowland said. “It’s those moments that stick in people’s minds.”

Viewers will see the points of the star rising from the river bank, Rowland said, with the most prominent point facing west toward Oklahoma.

“There’s this sloped glass wall where your view is framed, and it’s the exact view that the marshals had when they crossed the Arkansas River into Oklahoma,” he said.

The museum will have three permanent galleries designed by Christopher Chadbourne & Associates of Boston.

The first, called The Changing Nation, will examine the public’s view of the marshals in different periods of history.

“Like fugitive slave laws, when marshals were responsible for returning runaway slaves to the South,” Hayes said. “In the South they were loved, but in the North they were hated.”

The marshals were also heavily involved in school integration in the 1960s.

Another gallery will focus on the marshals’ frontier activities, in the fabled Old West but also in places like Alaska, Antarctica and even outer space.

The third gallery focuses on the modern Marshals Service.

“That’s where we talk about what the Marshals Service actually does today,” Hayes said. “Judicial security, the witness protection program. We’ll talk about the Asset Forfeiture Program and all of the different components that make up the Marshals Service.”

Also, a “hall of honor” will memorialize marshals killed in action.

Architect Reese Rowland said the hall features a pool of water under a star-shaped skylight.

“You’ll sit in that space, looking out over the river, and the light filters down through the star, reflecting on the water,” Rowland said. “It’s really pretty elegant.”

There will also be space for temporary exhibits, a couple of theater spaces, a courtroom, a museum store, a cafe and a lobby area for events.

One-Two Punch

Rice, at Parks & Tourism, said the museum “really offers a one-two punch for west-central Arkansas.”

He said its proximity to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, which registered more than half a million visitors in its first year, would especially bolster the area.

In 2009, a study estimated the economic impact of the Marshals Museum. Then, the museum was expected to see about 115,000 visitors annually and have a payroll impact of about $1 million per year.

“We are actually looking to update that probably this year,” Hayes said, “especially because we can now factor in what the impacts that Crystal Bridges will have as well, seeing as how they’ve had outstanding visitation numbers. We really feel like the Marshals Museum, Crystal Bridges and the Clinton Library will help drive visitors from one place to the other. When we factor in some museums in Oklahoma, even in Memphis, it’s really a corridor of phenomenal educational institutions.”

“We’re excited the museum is coming to Arkansas,” said Rucker, at the Arkansas Museums Association. “It’s something with a story that needs telling, and Fort Smith is a great place to tell that story. Given the size of the museum and the amount of money, it’s right up there with the largest museums in the state.”

Rucker said the museum would also help job seekers with museum credentials to stay in the state. “Finding jobs in museums in the community is a difficult task,” he said. “Many have to leave the state to get started.”

“Fort Smith has long had the reputation of a fascinating Western town,” said Rice. “It’s had a lot of attention and notoriety, and the museum further positions Fort Smith as a unique destination in and of its own right.”