A Star Attraction

WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES Jade Graves Photography



Just beyond the stunning, low-slung metal and glass wonder that is the $50 million United States Marshals Museum, a striking, life-size statue of a mounted marshal draws the visitor’s attention. The lawman scans the horizon as if seeking signs of his quarry while the spirited steed chomps at the bit to give chase. It’s a beautifully powerful piece that’s so lifelike you almost taste the dust churned under the stallion’s hooves.

The marshal’s gaze squints outward, an apt metaphor for the museum itself. It’s been sixteen years since Fort Smith was announced as the site of the national museum. Since then, officials and residents have looked to its opening as a dot on the horizon separated by a million details and tens of millions in funding. But with doors opening to the public July 1, the U.S. Marshals Museum, like the men and women who make up this storied corps, has finally brought ‘em in.

“[Arkansas is] a state of three million people, yet we’ve got some enormously powerful cultural entities that anchor this place,” says Ben Johnson, president and CEO. “When they were building Crystal Bridges [Museum of Modern Art in Bentonville], the art scene across the country was aghast that this would happen in Arkansas, and I think it’s a similar thing for the U.S. Marshals Museum.

“But once folks walk in and see the quality of the experience and the building and the setting, they are going to be blown away. I get the skepticism and the, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’, mentality after fifteen or sixteen years. But when they come in, my hope and my goal is the first time they walk in and come around that first corner is that they go ‘Ooohhh OK, I get it.’”

Ben is one of the newer faces around here, having only been on board since last summer. But from the beginning, he’s also been riding the hardest, singularly focused on completing and opening the massive project. It hasn’t been easy; the grumbling over the project started to build to a roar in 2019 when a ballot initiative seeking a local sales tax to help fund the museum fell by a margin of two to one. Money problems, followed by COVID, meant that between 2019 and 2022, there sat a yawning hole in the center of the building where interactive multimedia displays should have been.

Even Ben’s arrival didn’t get the warm reception it might have, occurring as it did in the wake of his predecessor Patrick Weeks’ resignation in March after being charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. The public relations fallout, combined with the five million dollars still needing to be raised, brought the project dangerously close to being written off altogether as fool’s gold in the minds of many.

“The most common comment I got was ‘You guys gotta open,’” Ben says. “That was the thing. There’s nothing we could do to reenergize, to re-excite, to urge donors, to make people believe more than to just open. That’s why we made the commitment last fall to say, ‘OK, we don’t have all the money just yet, but we gotta do everything we can to open.’

“It’s about time. It’s not about parades and brass bands and all that stuff; it’s about opening the doors and making sure people come in and see what all the fuss has been about for sixteen years.”

Ben details all this as he leads a guest through the exhibit space, where workers move feverishly to complete the project. The amount of work that’s been done in a short time is incredible to anyone following this project’s ups and downs, and upon officially opening, it will be absolutely spectacular. More than a repository of antique firearms and a few wanted posters, the museum is chock full of animatronics, touchscreens, and monitors that tell the story of the service from a variety of angles.

Even the analog features – such as informative placards, a specially equipped Humvee, and a timeline along the exhibit hall walls – tell the compelling story. It’s a festival for the senses, yet it doesn’t feel overwhelming or claustrophobic.

“Most people, all they know about the U.S. Marshals is something they saw in a movie, you know, Tommy Lee Jones from The Fugitive or one of those guys,” Ben says. “But if you ask what the marshals do now, they’ll say, ‘I didn’t even know they still existed.’

“What we’re doing, we’re doing in a way that makes people want to come here and engage as we tell a story of people living their lives, doing their jobs, and making decisions in the moment.”

Those moments stretch more than two hundred and thirty-four years to the original thirteen marshals commissioned by President George Washington on September 26, 1789. One of those, Robert Forsyth, U.S. Marshal for the District of Georgia, would be shot on January 11, 1794, becoming the first of more than two hundred killed in the line of duty. A somber wall of copper plates commemorates their ultimate sacrifice in the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor, while a nearby interactive kiosk tells their stories.

While such tribute is altogether appropriate, the museum’s most impressive elements can be found in the willingness to shine a light on the murkier and more complicated elements of the marshals’ history. In the exhibit “A Changing Nation,” the controversial themes of civil rights, indigenous people, domestic terrorism, race, and political issues are told unflinchingly.

“It has been a priority for this staff, even before I got here, and the Marshals Service itself, to tell the story, the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Ben says. “This is not a story where the government or the Marshals Service always comes in to save the day. On the same wall, within a few feet of each other on that intro timeline, you have the marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, while at the same time, Fredrick Douglass becomes a U.S. Marshal. It shows that history isn’t static.

“You are never going to walk through some of the stories we tell and be comfortable one hundred percent of the time. We will have people who walk through and get angry about some things, and that’s just the way that it is. Short of not telling a story, there’s really no good way around some of that, and to the Marshal Services’ credit, they’ve done a good job of saying, ‘We want to tell all parts of the story even where it makes us look bad.’”

Once open, the museum expects to welcome more than one hundred and twenty thousand visitors a year, generating $1.8 million in annual revenue from admissions, facility rental, and other sources of income. Even more valuable, Ben says, will be the look on people’s faces when they finally get to see that for which they’d waited so long, like the ninety-two-year-old retired U.S. Marshal he encountered at a conference shortly after taking the job with the museum.

“He was just talking, telling stories of guarding (Ole Miss’s first Black student) James Meredith’s room in his early career,” Ben says. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘Am I ever going to see this museum before I die?’ To look into his eyes and see how all he wants is to see this happen, that was when I came back, and I was like, ‘We gotta do this now. We owe it to them.’

“To any of the folks who are still on the fence or off the fence and say we should never have done it, I’ll say this: good things involve risk and effort. I sincerely hope that folks walk in and see the care, attention to detail, and hard work and see the stories, listen to the people, and really feel how this is an American history story told through the lens of the U.S. Marshals Service.”

U.S. Marshals Museum
789 Riverfront Drive, Fort Smith
Open 9am-5pm daily, closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas
Adults: $13, Seniors (65+): $11, Youth (ages 6-17): $8, Under 6 Years: FREE
Current Military/Law Enforcement: FREE with ID
U.S. Marshals Service: FREE
Military/Law Enforcement Veterans: $10
Group Rates Available

Do South Magazine

Related Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This