FORT SMITH -- The U.S. Marshals Museum is still on track to open this summer as its exhibits are being installed, according to its president and chief executive officer.
Ben Johnson said the museum's exhibit design team arrived with the first two truckloads of "scenic materials" for its permanent exhibit gallery March 6. The team has been installing the material rapidly since then. Johnson estimated their work will be finished in another couple of months.
The museum's exhibit experience will include five dedicated galleries concerning the U.S. Marshals Service and its history, according to the museum website. The galleries will consist of: To Be a Marshal, Frontier Marshals, the Campfire, a Changing Nation and Modern Marshals.
Johnson said the museum's gallery space will be more than a large room with "words on the wall and old stuff in cases." It will be an immersive experience in which visitors can take part.
"When I say 'scenic stuff,' you're going to have the facade of a courthouse within which the Constitution comes to life in an animated interactive experience," Johnson said. "You're going to have a campfire beneath the stars in a rocky outcropping where four deputy marshals from different historical eras are sitting there speaking to each other. You're going to have a saloon scene where you walk through the swinging doors and a bartender speaks to you and tells you stories."
Doug Babb, chairman of the museum's board, said in January that Thinkwell Group, a Los Angeles company, has been coordinating with about 60 or 70 vendors across the United States and Canada to design and build the museum's exhibits. The museum signed a $7.8 million contract with Thinkwell in November 2021.
Thinkwell and others are working to install the exhibits, according to Johnson. He anticipates being able to announce an opening date for the museum within the next two months as the component shipping and installation process continues.
Johnson said Little Rock-based CDI Contractors has also nearly finished construction in the museum to accommodate the exhibits, a process that started in early October. There is slightly more than 18,000 square feet of exhibit space.
"We're finishing up some of the electrical work and cabling right now, but it's basically ready for the exhibit folks to do their magic," Johnson said.
Johnson said the museum also has been hiring additional people ahead of its planned opening. The museum had five or six full-time staff members when Johnson started in his position in August, a number that has since grown to 12. It will likely add about 15 more employees.
"The last folks that we'll end up bringing in will be the front line, guest-facing staff, whether they're full- or part-time or temporary seasonal," Johnson said. "Those'll be here in the coming months."
The Marshals Museum Foundation has to raise about $3.5 million to complete its approximately $50 million capital campaign, according to Johnson. This will go toward finishing the museum's exhibits, filling out its staff and buying any remaining furniture, fixtures and equipment it needs to operate. It will also help cover operating expenses as the museum opens.
Babb has said the price of the exhibits went up as a result of inflation and supply chain issues, among other factors, that came after the museum signed the Thinkwell contract.
Susan Neyman, the museum's chief development officer and foundation president, said the foundation has raised about $46.5 million since Fort Smith was announced as the museum site in January 2007.
Neyman said the foundation's board is working hard to forge connections with individuals, companies and other foundations to close the $3.5 million gap in the capital campaign. It anticipates hearing more on a number of proposals for money from others.
The foundation is also re-engaging donors who invested in the museum project early in its lifespan and have been waiting to do anything else until the museum was closer to opening, according to Neyman. It has been inviting people to the museum to see what their initial investment has been able to accomplish and how they can help finish the project.
"We have people in regularly, almost daily now," Neyman said. "We're giving tours, taking them through the building -- some of whom have never been in the building at all and some it's been a number of years, so they've not seen any of the exhibit progress or the things that you can't see when you just drive by the building."
The Division of Arkansas Heritage announced Feb. 22 the Marshals Museum as one of five nonprofit recipients of its Arkansas Cultural Institutions Trust Fund award. The museum received $800,000 for the creation and installation of its exhibit space, according to a state news release.
Fort Smith voters rejected a proposal in March 2019 to levy a nine-month, 1% sales tax to pay for the museum's completion. Construction of the main museum building, which consists of about 53,000 square feet at 789 Riverfront Drive along the Arkansas River, was completed in January 2020.