The U.S. Marshals Museum being built in Fort Smith has a number of goals, but for Americans — and for fans of democracy generally — perhaps the most important is its role in teaching the importance of the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law: civic literacy.
The museum staff discovered early on “that our public schools are woefully under-equipped to teach students the importance of the rule of law to keeping this nation as one,” said Jim Dunn, the retired Fort Smith lawyer who’s now president of the U.S. Marshals Museum Foundation, the fundraising and support arm of the museum.
“Students today don’t receive the same sort of education that older folks like me did, where we had a course that talked about the Constitution, the separation of powers and all those sorts of things,” Dunn said in an interview last week with Arkansas Business.
“This comes under the term ‘civic literacy.’ And civic literacy in the United States is at an all-time low. And unless kids — and adults — learn through our national learning center and through the exhibits showing what the marshals have done to enforce the rule of law for almost 230 years, then we are missing an opportunity to make sure that we have people who participate in our democracy and who understand what is needed in order to keep this country going.
“You may hear sometimes that history is not as important as it used to be, that history museums are not as popular as they used to be, and this is not a problem; this is our challenge,” Dunn said.
“We have the unique opportunity in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to impact people’s knowledge about the Constitution and the rule of law. And we’ve already done it,” he said, referring to the Marshals Museum’s Winthrop Paul Rockefeller Distinguished Lecture Series.
The series was funded with a $100,000 grant from Lisenne Rockefeller, widow of Lt. Gov. Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, and has featured the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and, most recently, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
The Marshals Museum, of course, will tell the story of the U.S. Marshals Service, what the service itself calls “the story of how the American people govern themselves.” A slice of that story takes place in Fort Smith, and the selection in 2007 of the city as the site of the museum pleased many Arkansans, not least because of Fort Smith’s colorful history and its renown as “hell on the border” and the gateway to Indian Territory and the West.
“Here, tribal courts had no jurisdiction over non-Indian settlers,” the National Park Service’s website notes. “This legal detail gave an advantage to the most desperate breed of outlaw, who found refuge beyond the pale of justice and could murder and steal with little fear of retribution. To bring offenders to justice, a federal marshal and a number of deputies, never more than 200 strong, combed this wilderness. When fugitives were apprehended, they were taken to Fort Smith for trial.”
And there, for many years, they came before “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. He sentenced 160 people to death.
Arkansas novelist Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” featuring ill-tempered, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and a couple of film adaptations of the novel further cemented the region’s reputation in the public imagination. Dunn has said, however, that the museum will not duplicate the efforts of the Fort Smith National Historic Site in telling the story of the marshals in the Parker era.
In November 2013, the Marshals Museum dedicated a cornerstone for the museum’s Hall of Honor, which will pay tribute to over 200 marshals killed in the line of duty. “We in the Marshals Service, no matter where we are from, think of our history in the West,” Stacia Hylton, then the director of the U.S. Marshals Service, said at the ceremony.
“For me, Fort Smith is like sacred ground,” Hylton said. “Imagine the courage it took to ride out into the darkness; imagine the lawlessness that existed back then. Every arrest was full of danger.”
The history of the Marshals Service encompasses the history of the nation, including the desegregation of public schools. Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting “The Problem We All Live With” depicts Ruby Bridges, an African-American 6-year-old, surrounded by four U.S. marshals escorting her to elementary school in New Orleans and to a place in history as one of the first black students to attend an all-white school in the South.
But, Dunn said, a lot of Americans don’t know their history or understand how their government works. Studies bear him out. A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches of government, a big drop from 2011, when 38 percent could identify the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Even before the museum opens on the banks of the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith, its education programs are fighting this ignorance, Dunn said.
A museum isn’t a collection of old things in boxes, said Patrick Weeks, who replaced Dunn as head of the museum on July 1, 2016. Instead, it’s “an opportunity to have an experience that transforms you.”
Weeks, museum president and CEO, isn’t focusing on exhibits; instead, he’s focused on the “experience.” He wants visitors to understand “who these marshals are, where they came from and why they are and what they’ve done at these significant points in our history and what they’re still doing today.”
‘A Story That Inspires’
“We’re telling a story that inspires,” he said. “And if we do our job right, we will inspire you in one way, shape or form.”
The Marshals Museum has made progress in fits and starts since the January 2007 announcement that Fort Smith had beaten out Staunton, Virginia, as the site of the $58.6 million project. Its timing wasn’t great, with fundraising getting underway not long before the start of the Great Recession. By March 2013, fundraising had passed the $10 million mark. The museum’s formal groundbreaking was Sept. 24, 2014, when it was projected to open in 2017.
That was pushed back and in October 2016, the museum announced it would open Sept. 24, 2019, with Weeks declaring that “the time is now.” In June, the museum announced that design and construction changes had reduced costs for the site and facility to $16.5 million from a projected $33.5 million.
The museum has raised $35.5 million, 60 percent of the project’s total cost, Alice Alt, vice president of development, told Arkansas Business last week.
Last month, construction on the pad where the 53,000-SF museum will sit was completed at the 16.3-acre site donated by the Westphal family of Fort Smith, with 23,000 cubic yards of dirt being moved to the location, near H Street and Riverfront Drive. The dirt pad raises the building out of the flood zone by 5 feet.
Construction on the building is expected to begin in mid-spring 2018.
CDI Contractors of Little Rock is the construction consultant, and Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock is the project architect.
Museum promoters and state tourism officials envision the Marshals Museum as one point in an Arkansas cultural tourism triangle that also includes Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. It’s seen attracting tourists from across the nation. Alt calls it the “trifecta” and said the museum had collaborated with Crystal Bridges and the Clinton Center on projects and that future partnerships are planned.
But Dunn also emphasized the cultural and tourism importance of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma and their cultural, historic and recreational facilities just across the border.
The Marshals Museum has meant a lot of hard work, Weeks said, but in six months it will start rising from the banks of the Arkansas River. “The time has come.”