The Ft. Smith Museum of History

This post is a departure from my usual natural history museum writing, but why not take a break sometimes?

I was in Ft. Smith, Arkansas for a weekend while my daughter danced at a Regional Dance America Festival.  During the day, she had classes and I had school projects to complete.  I had planned to hole up in my hotel room and do nothing but schoolwork for three days, but of course, my plan was foiled by a museum.

On Saturday morning I used my Starbucks app to locate the nearest place for my iced grande two-pump vanilla non-fat latte fix and headed out – in the wrong direction.  That’s when I saw it.  The Fort Smith Museum of History is just three blocks away from my hotel!  Obviously, I was meant to see it.  After locating my caffeine fix and doing a couple of hours of school work, I took advantage of the absolutely gorgeous southern spring day and walked down to the museum.  When I arrived I discovered that I had picked a perfect day to visit.    It was the day of the Heritage Festival!  Museum entry was free and there were all kinds of activities to be found in and around the area, including historical re-enactments on the grounds of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.  Wait, there’s a National Park site here too?  Great!  Now the hour I had decided to spend in this little, local museum had turned into an afternoon, so much for school.

Where to begin?  This museum is charming and chock full of historical objects related to the town of Ft. Smith.  The entry area includes several large objects that anyone can see for free on any day the museum is open.  Two hand-crafted doll houses made by local women and the “New American” fire engine were the ones that drew me in.  I wish that we still put such lovely details on utilitarian things.  Fort Smith’s first professional fire engine is a work of art.  Granted, today’s engines are more effective, but this antique engine is just lovely to look at.

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After determining that there was no entrance fee on this special day, I turned to the paid area of the museum.  Right at the cashier I was confronted with two very interesting things.  The first was a sign:

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Not really an unusual sign until you take a trip through the museum.  There are artifacts everywhere.  Some are in cases and some have velvet rope to keep visitors reminded of their sacredness, but many of them are just – there.  A push lawnmower leaning against a wall, hoards of tools lying around on workbenches or hanging unsecured on walls, a cabinet full of typesetter’s blocks with drawers you can freely open to inspect, ladies stockings sitting on a table, a radio studio with welcoming seating and all the tools necessary to go on air, and much more.  In some ways, I found this shocking.  Wouldn’t visitors always be touching where they shouldn’t?  How many of those printing blocks get lifted every year?  Don’t kids pick up the swords and proceed to vanquish their enemies?  Ahhhhhhh!  But as I spent time in the museum, I realized that the visitors are locals and this is their history.  Everyone was polite and parents were mindful of their children.  It was crowded due to the Heritage Festival and free admission, so I saw plenty of visitors doing their thing and it was really nice to feel that this museum belongs to the community, not just those who run the museum.

The second thing that caught my eye at the register was the cell phone tour.  Just dial in and listen to J. Fred Patton, who wrote the History of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, give you a personal tour of the Time Line exhibit which begins with the establishment of the first fort in 1817 and continues through twentieth-century Ft. Smith.  The tour includes twenty-nine stops and takes just about an hour.  I listened through the first few stops and it is like having a docent along to tell you interesting and detailed stories about what you see on exhibit.  If I had been alone in the museum, I probably would have listened to every stop, but the number of people and their conversations distracted me and I decided that I wasn’t prepared to listen as attentively as I should, so I let my docent go.  A lot of time and excellent writing went into this tour and I hope that visitors take advantage of it.  I may dial in on my drive home and listen as I think it will be interesting even without the objects in front of me.  I suggest that the museum make this cell phone tour an online exhibition or series of podcasts and it would be an excellent resource for school children writing papers on local history with the added bonus of someone who sounds like grandpa telling you the story.

The cell phone tour is the only exhibition technology visible in the museum with the exception of two electronic photo frames in the Boy Scout exhibit, a video presentation in The Darby Room, and a television running a video outside the Boyd Gallery.  This doesn’t detract from the museum in the least.  In fact, much of the text in the exhibits is in the form of homemade poster board presentations that could have been created by school kids for history projects.

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Interestingly, they seem to be at home among the historical objects and they added to the feeling that this museum belongs to the citizens of Ft. Smith, not a cloistered group of intellectuals hidden from view.  Everything seems honest and sincere.  From the exhibits on the Trail of Tears to the gallery of Black History in Ft. Smith, the words are written by people who may have experienced events first hand, or knew someone who did, and it is refreshing.  It may not all be politically correct, but it is honest and seems well researched.

The first floor of the museum is generally given over to the Timeline exhibition.  It takes visitors on a time traveling journey through the day-to-day lives of the region’s inhabitants from the Native Americans to modern-day residents.   This exhibition is organized along a meandering route that can be confusing as the building is not set up for a linear exhibition.  I overheard several groups who felt lost or as if they had missed something and saw quite a few working through the exhibition backward.  The space is a bit cramped on a busy day and the exhibition isn’t exactly a linear timeline as it has offshoots to the Telephone Room, the Darby Room, and Boyd Gallery, which feel like part of the Timeline, but really are not.  The restrooms are located at the back of the exhibition at about the halfway point through and are a lesson in history themselves!  The museum has placed chairs scattered about the exhibition for those who need a rest, although it might be difficult to distinguish what is meant for this activity and what is part of an exhibit!

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There are some excellent opportunities to touch objects.  One of my favorites was the weaving samples made by a local professional weaver on the very loom displayed in the exhibit.  Possibly the only thing that would make this exhibit more interesting would be to have a person there weaving so that visitors could see the process and ask questions.  There is an opportunity to send a message by Morse code which I didn’t try because I had no one with me to go to the other station, and to place a call on an old rotary dial phone, which wasn’t working when I tried.  There are excellent examples of in-house created exhibit cases, like this one for allowing visitors to see both sides of a newspaper.

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The display spins, allowing visitors to inspect both sides of the newspaper, which is sandwiched between two sheets of glass.

And there are objects whose significance will appeal to visitors from outside the community, like the ‘whatnot’ cabinet that was displayed in the Arkansas exhibition at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago.

I saw no photo restrictions in the museum, although they do place signs asking visitors to please not use flash as it damages the objects.  There are lovely examples of old museum display cases and new ideas for temporary gallery walls that facilitate changing out hanging objects.

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Stairs to the second floor

The second floor of the museum includes The Museum of Antique Tools, Progress in a Small Frontier Town:  The Story of the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building, In the Shadow of the Gallows, Black History in Fort Smith, The Court of Judge Isaac C. Parker, and The Garrison Avenue Exhibit.  Each of these holds something surprising, but you have to get there first!  I had to ask about the second floor, because the signage is a bit cryptic.  On the door of the elevator is a sign that says “Elevator to the second floor”.  Well that’s great, but am I allowed to go up?  Is there anything there for me to see?  Why not something like “Don’t miss the exhibits on the second floor!”?  In any case, I opted to take the stairs, which are dusty, dark, and give you the feeling of going behind the scenes.  They smell like museum storage and made me feel like I was getting to go somewhere special.  I think the museum should play this up.

There is a donation box right at the top of the stairs, which is also where the elevator lets visitors off.  My first thought was, why isn’t this at the entrance?  But on regular days, visitors would have paid an entrance fee and by the time they reached the second floor would potentially decide that that fee was not enough to cover all the great stuff they were getting to see.  So I decided it made sense and put my donation in.  The museum might consider moving the box to the first floor exit on free days, because based on the number of people on the second floor, many visitors don’t make it there but they would probably donate after spending time on the first floor for free.

The second floor is essentially one large open room separated into exhibitions by partition walls or hanging signage.  I thought the most impressive exhibition was the Court of Judge Isaac C. Parker, which is a recreation of a period courtroom, complete with spittoons.  Visitors are not allowed in the courtroom, which is a bit of a disappointment given the availability of the rest of the museum.  I really wanted to go sit on the bench or in one of the juror seats.   I think that some mannequins in period clothing would add to this room and possibly audio of a court proceeding rather than the music that was playing.

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The Story of the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building is about the construction of the building and got me looking at the ceiling and the floors and thinking about how construction methods haven’t really changed much over time.  I learned that the Garrison Street exhibition started as a Boy Scout Eagle Award Project, which reinforced the community feel of the entire museum.  How many museums turn over a whole exhibition to a Boy Scout?  I found this idea wonderful!

I ended my visit with a trip to the Soda Fountain, which was offering a $3 build-your-own sundae bar on this special day.  The majority of the Soda Fountain room is actually another exhibition that is loaded with old apothecary tools, containers, and even some raw materials.  All fascinating, and I was picturing a pharmacist dressed in period clothing behind the counter offering up compounded remedies for what ailed me.

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The museum also runs a gift shop that carries a variety of history books, some locally made crafts, and an assortment of memorabilia.

I am generally not a history buff, but I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the Fort Smith Museum of History.  It is much more personal and inviting than the professional and slick museum run by the National Park Service in the Fort Smith National Historic Site.  If you are a local and have never crossed the threshold of the Fort Smith Museum of History, I suggest that you take an afternoon, slow down, and spend some time with the history of your community.  You’ll probably learn something new and you may connect dots that you never knew were connected.  You may even find that you want to be a participant in the making of this museum.  Volunteers are encouraged to apply and who knows?  You might end up curating the next temporary exhibition or refurbishing a permanent one.  I see opportunities for local kids to create Wikipedia pages about historical Ft. Smith figures or structures and extend the museum’s exhibitions into the community and beyond through technology.  If you are just visiting Ft. Smith, stop in and meet the “keeper and teller of Fort Smith’s rich and colorful history”  (Fort Smith Museum of History).  It will be an hour or two well spent.

The Fort Smith Museum of History is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 – 5:00. They are closed Sunday and Monday, except during the summer months when they are also open Sunday 1:00 – 5:00.   Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children over 6 and children under age 6 are free.  The museum is located at 320 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas 72901 and can be reached by telephone at (479)783-7841.  If you are interested in listening to the cell phone tour, dial (479) 221-9185.  The museum’s website is http://www.fortsmithmuseum.com/ .  Enjoy!

Works Cited

Fort Smith Museum of History. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved April 6, 2013, from Fort Smith Museum of History: http://www.fortsmithmuseum.com/