Home Destinations From Elvis’ barbershop to former brothel: 11 museums you’ll want to visit in the Natural State

From Elvis’ barbershop to former brothel: 11 museums you’ll want to visit in the Natural State

by Jan Schroder
Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas

See where Elvis got the “haircut heard around the world,” view sculptures with a river backdrop, see Mr. Sam the Hologram, and peruse masterworks of American art at museums in Arkansas. One surprising stop was a visitors center in a former brothel.

I was moved by the recounting of the violent protests that met the attempt at integration at the Little Rock Nine at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

The recently renovated Arkansas Museum of Fine Art is filled with art by artists that include Renoir, Monet, O’Keefe and Matisse, and a light-filled Cultural Living Room.

Here are 11 museums to see that informed, entertained, amazed and delighted me in Arkansas.

Museums in Little Rock, Arkansas

Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden

sculpture in Vogel Sculpture Garden
A delightful sculpture of children in Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden. (Photo by Jan Schroder)

I love strolling through sculpture gardens and was delighted to find this one just behind my hotel in Little Rock. Located in Riverfront Park on the banks of the Arkansas River, the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden has more than 90 works of art, from whimsical to thought-provoking, contained in little “rooms” created by the landscaping. Free admission.

ESSE Purse Museum

display in Esse purse museum
A display in Esse Purse Museum. Note the original Barbie in the background from the days when the poor girl had only one outfit and no convertible or dream house. (Photo by Jan Schroder)

I’m a handbag fanatic so couldn’t wait to visit the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock. This small museum was created  by Anita Davis  to tell the story of American women through the handbags they carry. She explained the name to us, “ESSE means to be and a woman’s purse holds who she is.”

Along with the permanent exhibition, “What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900-1999,” there are traveling exhibits in the small museum. There’s a scale for you to weigh your purse to see how much weight you’re lugging around. Make sure to leave time for the gift shop, filled with purses, books and accessories.

Arkansas Museum of Fine Art

standing bull by Elaine de Kooning
“Standing Bull” by Elaine de Kooning in the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts)

After a four-year, $150+ million renovation, the Arkansas Museum of Fine Art reopened in 2023 with a new bright and airy 133,000-square-foot building.

I strolled through several of the galleries, which contain works by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Henri Matisse and Willem de Kooning – just to namedrop a few of the more famous artists.

I’d love to spend a day relaxing or reading in the light-filled Cultural Living Room where people are encouraged to hang out. Free admission.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

photo from Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
A photo depicting the harsh treatment one of the Little Rock Nine received in 1957. (Photo courtesy of NHS.gov)

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more captivating and impassioned speaker than Park Ranger Randy Dobson at this historic site where in 1957 an attempt to integrate the high school was met with violent protests. Ranger Randy, an African American man who knew the Little Rock Nine as the students who integrated the school became known, makes the painful chapter in American history really come alive.

The high school is still operational so you can’t visit the inside, but you can tour the visitor center and view the outside of the school where the ugly protests took place. Free admission.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

replica of Oval Office at Clinton Presidential Library
A replica of the Oval Office as it was during the Clinton administration. (Photo by Jan Schroder)

“President Clinton was the last paper president,” our tour guide told us to explain why the three-floor library has 80 million pages of materials. This presidential library includes an exact replica of the Oval Office as it was during his administration and the White House Cabinet room with plaques on the chairs indicating where people sit.

One of my favorite displays was a selection of the thousands of gifts people and heads of state had given the Clintons during his administrations, including 8,000 Christmas ornaments.

The 42 Bar and Grill is a nice place for lunch and includes outdoor seating with river views.

For more on Little Rock, go to Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Museums in Bentonville, Arkansas

art in lobby at 21c Museum Hotel
Some of the art in the lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. (Photo by Jan Schroder)

About all I knew about Bentonville was that it is home to the Walmart headquarters. I did not expect a sophisticated, delightful city filled with art. We stayed at the 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville, also filled with art and the hotel’s signature life-size plastic penguins that move around during your stay.

The hotel has more than 12,000 square feet of exhibition space and additional works, like a penny-covered Fleetwood Cadillac, in the front of the hotel.

A stroll around town reveals more public art, like a building lit up with neon shapes at night, murals and sculptures.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

We the People by artist Nari Ward.
“We the People” by Nari Ward is made of shoelaces in all colors and sizes. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Bridges)

It’s thanks to Walmart money that the fabulous Crystal Bridges Museum of Art was opened in 2011, founded by Alice Walton. She had a passion for rural people to be able to enjoy good art.

I could have spent the entire day exploring the 200,000-square-foot museum and walking on the five miles of trails in the 120-acre forest. Our time was limited, but our docent Fran made sure we saw the highlights.

My favorite piece was a giant wall installation that spelled out the words “We the People” in shoelaces. People in the community were invited to come install the shoelaces on the piece created by artist Nari Ward.

We had lunch at Eleven, a gorgeous glass-sided restaurant with sandwiches, salads and seriously delicious chocolate chip cookies.

An extension of Crystal Bridges, The Momentary, is housed in a former Kraft cheese factory. It displays visual arts and serves as a venue for the performing arts indoors and out. The Tower Bar on the sixth floor of The Momentary is a great place to get a coffee, snack or craft cocktail. With glass walls most of the way around, it offers fantastic views. Free admission.

The Walmart Museum Heritage Lab

Mr. Sam the Hologram at the Walmart Museum Heritage Lab
Visitors interact with Mr. Sam the Hologram at the Walmart Museum Heritage Lab. (Photo courtesy of Walmart)

Housed in a temporary location while the Walmart Museum is closed for renovation, this temporary location is referred to as a lab because they are testing new technologies and exhibits here.

The most interesting technology was Mr. Sam the Hologram, a life-size hologram of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, who appears to answer questions from the audience. Free admission.

Museum of Native American History

display at museum of native american history
A display of beaded items at the Museum of Native American History. (Photo by Jan Schroder)

This small museum is packed with more than 10,000 artifacts covering five time periods of history, over 24,000 years. The mission of the museum is for visitors to learn more about the cultures of the Native Americans through their art. It was founded by David Bogle, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation.

My favorite displays were of the meticulously crafted beaded items like pouches, shoes and belts. Free admission.

For more on Bentonville, go to Visit Bentonville.

Fort Smith

Located in Northwest Arkansas right on the border with Oklahoma, Fort Smith is the state’s third most populous city and is home to several museums.

US Marshals Museum

us marshals museum
One reason Fort Smith was chosen for the US Marshals Museum is that more marshals died here during the frontier era than anyplace else. (Photo courtesy of US Marshals Museum)

The newest and by far the largest is the US Marshals Museum, which opened an impressive 53,000-square-foot star-shaped building on the banks of the Arkansas River in July 2023.

I confess ignorance to what marshals do, but learned from our visit there that they serve three functions: they handle the transportation of fugitives, provide security for witness and protect courthouses. And they were created in 1789 as the first federal law enforcement agency.

Exhibits tell the story of the US Marshals role in integrating schools in the South, what they did to try to maintain order in the wild, wild West and the dangers they encountered trying to raid illicit stills during Prohibition.

My favorite story was about a sting in Washington D.C. in 1985 called Operation Flagship. Several deputies dressed up as cheerleaders, officials and mascots – including one dressed as the San Diego Chicken – and invited fugitives to an event at the Washington Convention Center to receive free football tickets. They then arrested 101 fugitives, including one rather slow-to-catch-on guy who asked if he could still receive his tickets.

Chaffee Barbershop Museum

Thousands of soldiers got buzz cuts at Chaffee Barbershop, but none more famous than Elvis. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Tourism)

This place was always buzzing with soldiers getting their G.I. buzz cuts but none as famous as Elvis Presley whose flowy dark locks and famous sideburns were clipped when he reported for duty in 1958. It was the “haircut heard round the world.” The 1940s-style museum has period memorabilia and photographs. Free admission. (The museum is temporarily closed for renovation.)

Miss Laura’s Visitor Center

Miss Laura's bedroom at Miss Laura's Visitor Center.
Miss Laura entertained a different type of visitor in her bedroom than the ones who go to Miss Laura’s Visitor Center today. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Tourism)

Serving as the Visitor’s Center for Fort Smith but soon to become a museum, Miss Laura’s Social Club got its start as welcoming visitors looking for a different sort of, well, let’s just say satisfaction other than where to find a good place for brunch.

The Victorian mansion was built to be a brothel and operated as one until 1955. While there is not much that’s original in the home to when Miss Laura Ziegler operated her business there, it’s been furnished with period furnishings and makes for an interesting tour. We learned about the row of seven homes that once stood here, Fort Smith’s red light district. Free admission.

For more information on Fort Smith, visit the Fort Smith CVB.

— Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief

You may also like

Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

The Travel 100