Long-awaited U.S. marshals museum set to open in Arkansas

A ribbon cutting is scheduled for Saturday morning in Fort Smith

By: - June 30, 2023 6:00 am
Exterior of U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith

Following years of delays, the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith opens to the public July 1, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

After 20 years of planning and plenty of bumps in the road, the opening of the United States Marshals Museum on Saturday is a “dream come true” for board member Claude Legris. 

“We’re more than a little bit proud and just really excited to see it coming online,” he said.

The former executive director of the Fort Smith Advertising and Promotion Commission for years gathered with an informal steering committee at a coffee shop on Friday mornings to dream about the museum’s future. Those supporters have become lifelong friends whom Legris said he’s looking forward to reuniting with at this week’s celebrations, which included a private ceremony Thursday and a public ribbon cutting Saturday.

Museum President and CEO Ben Johnson said this weekend’s low-key affair may not be what the community was expecting, but “after 16 years, opening is the victory.”

“We just can’t wait to finally give [the community] what they’ve really worked hard for for so long,” Johnson said. 

Admission Rates

Adults: $13

Seniors (65+): $11

Military/Law Enforcement Veterans: $10

Youth (Age 6-17): $8

Under 6 Years: Free

Current Military/Law Enforcement with ID: Free

U.S. Marshals Service: Free

Group rates available at [email protected]

Fort Smith was selected as the site of the museum in 2007, but the project was delayed for years due to fundraising challenges. The nonprofit organization is still about $2 million shy of its initial $50 million goal, Johnson said. The museum’s annual budget will be around $2.5 million and work is underway to build up an endowment, he said.

While the museum honors a federal law enforcement agency, it’s not federally funded. The project has received contributions from foundations, business and individual donors, and it has been supported by local and state government entities. 

Located along the Arkansas River, the 53,000-square-foot facility explores American history through the lens of the U.S. Marshals Service, the nation’s first federal law enforcement agency. Founded in 1789, Johnson said the agency has been part of every major event in the country’s history.

The museum’s five permanent exhibit galleries feature immersive, interactive exhibits that explore both the good and bad parts of the agency’s history, he said.

“You’ll love your country more I think —I did — going through the experience and being able to say, ‘Yes, there have been challenges and issues and problems, and it’s imperfect and it’s messy and it is what it is, but that at the end of the day you have all these people that really genuinely are trying to make the country and the world a better place,’” he said.

“It’s a fun story to tell.”

timeline in U.S. Marshals Museum gallery
The U.S. Marshals Museum’s first gallery explores the history of the agency from its founding in 1789 up through 2020. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)


Bring it home

The history of a marshals museum dates back to a traveling exhibit that celebrated the agency’s bicentennial. The Smithsonian-designed exhibition traveled to 14 cities, and David Turk helped with the last two stops when he was hired as an assistant to the service’s first historian in 1991. 

Turk, the marshals’ current historian, said discussions arose around creating a permanent museum at the tour’s end. The agency’s history found a home in a “much smaller-scale museum” in Wyoming until that  closed in 2003, and the Marshals Service started searching for another site, he said.

Dick O’Connell, who was sworn in as the marshal for the Western District of Arkansas that same year, began talking to Legris about reviving the museum. Legris said they worked on a bid to bring the museum to Fort Smith, and kicked their “Bring It Home” campaign into high gear in 2004. 

While the agency is headquartered in Arlington, Va., Legris said it didn’t have a home. That home should be Fort Smith, he argued, because of community support and the marshals’ rich history in the region. 

During the 19th century, fugitives often fled to the federally-designated Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to escape prosecution. Their apprehension was assigned to marshals, and as a result, there are more marshals and deputy marshals buried in the Fort Smith area than anywhere else in the country, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Frontier Marshals gallery inside the U.S. Marshals Museum
The U.S. Marshals Museum features a mix of static and interactive exhibits. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Following a two-year study, Fort Smith was selected as the museum’s new home in 2007.

“And it’s taken that long to get where we are today,” Legris said. “But again, there’s been just so many things that we had to work through and we were just bound and determined that it was going to happen and it was going to be a world-class facility and it would be historically inclusive and educational and self-sustaining.”

Challenges included fundraising during a recession and supply shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

There were also personnel issues. Patrick Weeks, hired as museum president and CEO in June 2014, resigned in March 2022 after being charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. Johnson succeeded him in August 2022.

While all these factors delayed the project, Turk said museums typically take longer to develop these days because they require more technological things, like interactive exhibits, and cost more money.

When times were tough, Legris said he looked to the marshals’ motto for inspiration — Justice, Integrity, Service.

“I keep telling people, read the badge, and we always manage to get through,” he said. “It’s about service, justice and integrity and it’s all there is.”

replica of U.S. Marshals badge painted on the floor
The star on the U.S. Marshals badge was incorporated into the museum’s design and can be found throughout the building. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

Written in the stars

The marshals’ badge is reflected in the modified star-shaped design of the museum’s exterior. The building was dedicated on Sept. 24, 2019, the agency’s 230th anniversary. Staff moved into the building in January 2020 and installation of the exhibits began this spring. 

The museum includes the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor, which pays tribute to the more than 300 marshals killed in the line of duty. A 4,000-square-foot special exhibits gallery will keep things fresh, Johnson said, and serve as a cultural venue for traveling history or art exhibits that currently don’t have a space for display in the region.

The facility’s 18,000-square-foot permanent exhibition space explores the agency’s full history from frontier days to the social movements of the 20th century to the modern marshal. 

One of the most immersive sections is an Old West saloon that includes swinging doors, John Wayne’s black parade saddle and a digital bartender telling stories. An interactive digital poker table provides an opportunity to play a game while learning historical facts.

“To me that is an ingenious way of relating the story and making it a game,” Turk said. “I love that.”

Saloon exhibit in U.S. Marshals exhibit
Actor John Wayne helped create the mythology of the frontier marshal through his western films. Wayne road this saddle, on loan from Johnelle Hunt, in many parades. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

While the new museum was being built, Turk said he continued sharing the service’s history in a small room at its headquarters. It’s important to bring that history to a larger audience, Turk said, because even after three decades of working for the Marshals Service, he’s still asked about what they do.

Part of that comes from the agency’s evolving duties. While marshals have always guarded the judiciary, they also took the federal Census until 1870 and pursued counterfeiters before the Secret Service was formed, Turk said.

“We’re the oldest federal law enforcement agency and we have a big story and there’s literally thousands of little side stories,” he said. “They will never run out of stories to tell at this museum.”

According to a 2018 study, the museum could see around 125,000 visitors a year, and officials estimate it could have an annual economic impact of $13 million to $22 million on Sebastian County. Johnson said he anticipates the museum’s cultural impact will be more significant than the economic one because projects like these are often reserved for major coastal cities and state capitals.

“To be in a town this size, with something of this caliber, [it] really can have a transformative effect on not just our neighborhood, but the community and the region…and I really don’t think we’re going to know what that impact looks like for another couple of years,” he said.

The U.S. Marshals Museum will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, closing only on four major holidays. More information is available at www.usmmuseum.org.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.