FORT SMITH — After years and years of hovering like a mirage on the western horizon of Arkansas, the long-awaited U.S. Marshals Museum is finally a solid reality, aiming to open this summer.
Visitors to the waterside location, off Riverfront Drive a mile north of Fort Smith National Historic Site, now can view the museum's completed exterior. Its low-slung silhouette is as sleek as Arkansas' western frontier with Indian Territory was rough-edged in the late 19th century. Back then, federal marshals formed a tenuous front line of law and order extending into what became Oklahoma.
It is also possible to buy remotely from The Outpost, the museum's gift shop. The online emporium is open at u-s-marshals-museum.myshopify.com. At the top end of items is a $249.99 Commemorative Airshot Pistol. Less pricey impulse buys include a $14.99 pint glass engraved with "You Can Run But You Can't Hide" — a taunt to miscreant fugitives.
"For now, we are just saying the opening will be in the summer," reports Susan E. Neyman, the museum's chief development officer and foundation president. "The 20,000-square-foot 'shell' that the interactive exhibits will occupy is nearing completion. Our partners at Thinkwell Group, a global design agency, will begin delivering the exhibit components in early March."
After that, an exact opening date can be determined, Newman says, "and from our perspective, the sooner the better. We hope to be in a position to invite some school or tour groups as a test run. There will be a public 'ribbon-cutting' ceremony on our first full day of operations, plus a celebration event sometime later."
Fort Smith's quest to create the U.S. Marshals Museum began in 2004 with an application to an ad-hoc federal selection committee. The museum's mission was spelled out as "telling the rich story of America's oldest federal law enforcement agency, the Constitution and the rule of law through immersive and interactive exhibit experiences that will educate and entertain visitors of all ages."
In 2007, Fort Smith was chosen as the site over a half-dozen other locations around the country. In 2009, local planners unveiled a star-shaped design later discarded in favor of the present stylish configuration.
In 2010, the fundraising total reached $6 million. In 2013, the 16-acre site along the Arkansas River was selected, but a dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers delayed work. After resolution late in 2015, the museum's opening was announced for Sept. 24, 2019.
Following further delays, a building permit was issued in 2018 with a value of $19 million. In 2019, a fund shortage of $15.5 million was reported, before additional efforts added enough money to complete the long-awaited project. The capital campaign has raised more than $46 million to date, less than $4 million short of its goal.
The museum hopes to draw travelers from across the nation, expanding Fort Smith's tourism appeal beyond the regional scope of Fort Smith National Historic Site and other frontier-era attractions.
When the museum opens, says Neyman, "its most impressive aspect, beyond the breathtaking view of the Arkansas River through the glass walls on the west side, will be the nearly 20,000 square feet of exhibit area.
"There will be five galleries, plus another space for temporary exhibits, covering the history of the U.S. Marshals Service from 1789 to the present day. Visitors should not expect to see only 'stuff under glass,' but instead state-of-the-art, interactive and immersive exhibits, allowing them to take part actively in the experience."
The five spaces, as described by Neyman, include:
◼️ Marshal Gallery, the starting point for visits, will have a timeline of the agency's history. It will explain marshals' duties throughout U.S. history and answer questions such as, "What does it take to be a marshal?"
◼️ Frontier Marshals Gallery will present both the legends and the real stories of marshals in the Old West, with "the real stories front and center and no less captivating than the enduring images of film and television."
◼️ Changing Nation Gallery will explain that the Marshal Service has changed in a number of ways since it was founded 234 years ago as the first national law-enforcement agency. Visitors will be able to test their skills at the interactive Marshals Challenge exhibit.
◼️ Modern Marshals Gallery will lead visitors through some of the agency's training requirements, "highlighting the character traits that make candidates best suited for the Marshals' uniquely flexible set of responsibilities."
◼️ The Campfire: Stories Under that Stars "is the central hub of the experience, where visitors will listen in on the conversation among four marshals, one from each century of marshal history. As the marshals tell their stories, images are projected on the rock face above in shadows from the campfire."
The frontier narrative of Fort Smith "lives in our exhibit experience," Neyman says. "The primary area of focus on western Arkansas will be the time period most of us think of — the era of the famous Judge [Isaac C.] Parker. But the museum is nationally scoped and will cover the marshals' history across the country from 1789 to now."