Arkansas is a state that many may not give much thought about when planning their vacations. Often considered a “fly over state”, I have recently discovered it has much to offer a traveler in search of adventure, culture, or a natural refuge. Home to 52 state parks and some of the most modern museums one can want to explore, as well as hot springs, musical centers, and of course well known as one of the major hotbeds of the civil rights movement, Arkansas is both naturally beautiful and contains some must-see, man-made marvels.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art celebrates both art and nature a setting that explores the power of art with the beauty of surrounding natural landscape. The Museum, founded in 2005 by Alice Walton, takes its name from nearby Crystal Spring and the bridge construction incorporated in the building design by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie.
Crystal Bridges is home to a permanent collection that features American masterworks dating from the Colonial to contemporary times. It specializes in art from the region, but also displays national and international exhibits, and is always on view to the public free of charge (admission is sponsored by WalMart for all but occasional temporary exhibitions).
The museum is both surrounded by and incorporated with 120 acres of forests and gardens, using them as part of the museum itself, and as a place to explore outdoor art and pieces. Six pedestrian trails wind through the campus, connecting the museum to the neighborhood at large and building a community space and encouraging connections to the arts and nature. The building itself is a work of art, and the educational programs offered by Crystal Bridges make art available, relatable, and tangible for patrons of all ages.
The Old State House Museum is a great way for visitors to experience Arkansas history. One can take a guided tour, use a self-guided tour map or cell phone tour guide at your own pace and choosing only what interests you, or schedule a group tour. No reservations are needed for self-guided tours or hourly guided tours (which are 50 minutes long). Reservations are needed for group tours of 10 or more.
The Old State House in Little Rock is home to many permanent exhibits which incorporate the history of the building, the collections, and significant areas of Arkansas history (art, time periods, books, clothing, influential people, and more). Some of these include “The Legacy of Arkansas Women”, Political History, First Families and Governors of Arkansas, Period Rooms, Legislative Chambers, and Dresses of the First Ladies.
The Old State House Museum was given a fresh coat of paint, had it’s window sills redone, and the hyphen between the main building and the wings were updated as well this year. This lovely building, once the home of politics in the state until the roof caved in and it was moved just down the street to a larger building (yes, the roof has since been replaced) will be a favorite stop on your tour of Arkansas.
The Museum of Native American History is home to many authentic Native American artifacts from a wide array of locations and time periods (arranged in chronological order). One of the largest and most diverse exhibits of stone tools, arrowheads, headdresses, pottery, and more, these span not only the Arkansas area but the USA at large and South America. While there, you can see such artifacts as a Cheyenne scalp shirt, Blackfoot headdress, and Lone Dog’s winter count on a buffalo hide. Learn how early man hunted with the Atlatl. See an amazing painting done by the famous White Swan, relics from the Buffalo Bill show, and the monstrous mastodon skull and tusks as you walk in. This museum is truly impressive, not just in scope, but in variety and quality. These artifacts have held up over time, some as old as 14,000 years. Featuring free self guided audio tours (with remotes that you can press the number of the exhibit you are looking at for more information) the museum is open every day except Sunday.
Central High School National Historic Site is, in reality, a working and functioning high school that has a diverse population of students attending. This school became famous (or rather infamous) in 1957 when it was the focus of a hotbed national debate over civil rights and integration in public schools in the South.
Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus ruled against the federal court system and dissented from the authority of the United States Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling while nine African-American high school students attempted to exercise their legal right to obtain an education from Central High, which was then all Caucasian. Named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” the year it was built (1927), Central High would be the location of many ugly scenes and riots, and the place the entire world watched as the desegregation laws and Southern civil rights laws were challenged.
Located just across the intersection from the school, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center contains interactive audio and visual exhibits on the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Hearing oral history at the listening stations where visitors can learn about the events that took place from the actual participants in their own voices is amazing.
The Little Rock 9 (as these brave students came to be known) were national symbols of determination and equality, bringing the nation further along on it’s path to equality, as the school itself became a symbol of outdated laws and the progress that still needed to be made. The school and the students challenged the nation to require democracy for all, to debate the meaning of equal rights, and demanded that separate was not equal. Learn more about the school, the times, and the students who heralded in a new era in the South and in the country. Challenge yourself on your own knowledge of the Constitution and rights under the law. Read the books written by the students who experienced the integration.
The integration in Little Rock was a major test to the United States’ will and ability to enforce the African-American population’s rights against southern mobs and riots. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced by the intense and unrelenting mob violence to use federal troops and local police to ensure the rights of these African-American children to attend Central High, he became the first president since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to use federal troops in support of African-American civil rights. 8 of the 9 students made it through the first year at Central High, with one being expelled, and the only senior (Ernest Green) having graduated in 1958 as the first African American graduate of the school. His ceremony was attended by family and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.