FORT SMITH, Ark. — The U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith — a project nearly two decades in the making — has plans to soon open its doors to the public.
Recently named President and CEO, Ben Johnson notes that cultivating the history of more than 230 years takes time, but that time is quickly coming to an end. Putting an end to the controversy and frustration 15 years in the making.
However, in order to explain how the U.S. Marshals Museum arrived at plans to open, we have to go back in time and look at how it all began.
Fort Smith has a long history of being the last frontier before early settlers and pioneers ventured into tribal lands. With the Arkansas River serving as a natural barrier between the country to the east and Indigenous Land to the west, appointing a Marshal outpost to the Western District of Arkansas in Fort Smith made sense.
History, good, bad, and indifferent since then has made Fort Smith an ideal location to become the historical home to the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the nation.
"More Marshals and Deputy Marshals died in the line of duty serving out of the Western District of Arkansas," said Johnson. "They consider Fort Smith and this whole region of the River Valley to be sacred ground because of so many of those men and women who lost their lives working out of here."
In the early 2000s, the Marshal Service began looking for communities interested in housing the museum. "Fort Smith was in a great position at that point to really embrace the project," says Johnson. "In 2007, the Marshal Service selected Fort Smith, Arkansas, as the home."
Prior to the 2007 selection, anyone interested in learning more about the U.S. Marshals and the history of the service could visit Washington D.C. or a temporary mobile museum that traveled the nation.
Fifteen years later and with more than $45 million in local fundraising, Riverfront Drive became the permanent home of the U.S. Marshals Museum.
So why has the museum yet to open? Well, we have to go back to March 2020.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world, officials with the museum were forced to postpone the opening. Fast forward to 2021, supply chain issues and a resurgence of the virus once again put things on pause.
With 2022 now quickly approaching, then-President and CEO, Patrick Weeks, was arrested in December, 2021. By March 2022, Weeks resigned effective immediately and the museum board began their search for his replacement.
"When I was contacted initially by the recruiting team that said, 'Hey, we have this great opportunity, we're reaching out to some folks who may be interested, let us tell you about it,' and I'll be honest that my first couple of phone conversations was, 'Fort Smith, Arkansas, what's in Fort Smith, Arkansas? Why would that be exciting?'" recalled Johnson.
Yet, with some persistence and tours of the facility and the city, Johnson and his wife fell in love with Fort Smith and that opportunity he was pitched.
By August of 2021, Johnson was named President and CEO and hit the ground running ever since. His 20 years of experience in the industry was the fit the U.S. Marshals Museum needed.
"I've held pretty much every potential job in the industry from intern to facility maintenance and janitorial, to collections management and curator, and then executive leadership," said Johnson.
In the month since Johnson came on board, not much has changed on the outside of the museum, but once you step inside, you see... or rather hear, the work being done.
"Noise is music," laughs Johnson. "Anytime anyone in the staff starts going, 'man, they're making a lot of noise today' I just remind them, 'we're making progress. Noise means progress.'"
That progress comes in the form of steel framing, running electrical cables and drywall in the nearly 20,000-square-foot exhibit hall, which Johnson says will be an experience unlike any other.
"The exhibit experience themselves is going to take you step-by-step from 1789 to the present-day and even into the future and folks are really going to be amazed by some of the stuff that's in there, and the stories, and the immersive nature of it," says Johnson.
While there will be objects under glass and words on the wall, Johnson is excited to say, "this is an immersive, interactive experience that people are going to be able to walk in and feel like they are a part of history as it's taking place."
Looking to the future, Johnson believes the U.S. Marshals Museum will continue to tell the history and stories of the Marshal Service for as long as the agency serves the nation. In doing so, the museum will leave a lasting impact on the entire River Valley and western Arkansas.
"This is a cultural and arts organization, but it has a significant economic development footprint," explained Johnson. "This is an economic development machine that will draw more interest to the Riverfront, downtown and across the region."
Now that we have established how and why Fort Smith was chosen as the home of the U.S. Marshals Museum, what caused some of the delays, and what visitors can expect, the question remains: when will the U.S. Marshals Museum open?
"That was the first question," recalled Johnson. "Pulled into town, got to the hotel and within five minutes of walking in the front door they said, 'when are you going to open?'"
Three months since that conversation, Johnson and his team are happy to answer the burning question. "I am willing to say summer of '23," said Johnson. "Whether that's early summer, midsummer, or late summer, we're going to see how that works out, but it's going to be in '23."
Skeptics, doubters, and everyone interested in visiting only have six to eight more months left of waiting, and the museum's top executive has a parting message for all.
"We are at a point of no return," says Johnson with a smile. "This is a thing; this is going to happen."
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