Arkansas enjoys more than its share of cultural institutions.
In addition to its many religious attractions, Arkansas has a host of museums covering topics from past presidents to modern art. These museums capture the spirit of their cities and make a worthy stop on any religious group’s itinerary as they make their way through the Natural State.
This itinerary showcases the memorable museums in five destinations throughout the state. It begins in Little Rock, then heads west to Hot Springs. Next it turns north to Fort Smith and continues north to Bentonville and Eureka Springs. Allow five days for an enjoyable and enlightening tour through the state.
A Presidential Landmark in Little Rock
Presidential museums and libraries are designed to both honor the legacies of past presidents and document their time in office by preserving documents, photographs and artifacts. Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and former governor of Arkansas, is an Arkansas native, so it makes sense that his presidential library and museum can be found in Little Rock. It’s part of the Clinton Presidential Center and Park right next to the Arkansas River.
Groups can take guided tours of the museum’s three floors to see exhibits detailing Clinton’s life and political career. Exhibits include the presidential limousine designed by Cadillac to transport President Clinton; replicas of the Cabinet Room and Oval Office; and photographs and documents from Clinton’s early life. A couple of galleries also feature rotating exhibits. Groups can dine at 42 Bar and Table, the museum’s restaurant, for an elegant meal from the varied menu accompanied by beautiful river views.
While you’re there: As the capital of Arkansas, Little Rock is home to many other museums besides the Clinton Presidential Museum. The Esse Purse Museum, Museum of Discovery and the Old State House Museum are just a few visitors can explore. Groups can tour the Arkansas Capitol and see the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, a stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. At this important historic site, visitors can learn about the Little Rock Nine and the struggle to desegregate education in America.
Hot Springs’ Historic Bathhouses
Hot Springs National Park is renowned as an oasis in the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas, famous for its natural thermal springs and for the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. For thousands of years, people have been using the springs as a source of healing and medicine to address a variety of different ailments spiritual and physical. Bathhouse Row has been providing naturally heated water for visitors to enjoy since the 1800s. The Fordyce Bathhouse is the largest bathhouse on the row and opened in 1915. Today, it serves as the park’s visitor center and museum. With its ornate, stained-glass ceilings and marble details throughout, it was once the most luxurious bathhouse and is a must-see when visiting Hot Springs.
During a tour, groups can watch educational videos about the region’s history, Bathhouse Row and the 143-degree hot springs. They can see the building’s historic rooms restored to their former glory and furnished with vintage pieces, as well as the vintage therapeutic technology used on clients to promote their healing.
While you’re there: Hot Springs is a national park as well as a city, and it’s famous for its ranger-led walking tours. These 45-minute tours take visitors around downtown to learn about the history of the springs and the town itself. Groups can also visit the Garvan Woodland Gardens, 210 acres of botanical gardens and home to the breathtaking, architecturally unique Anthony Chapel.
Fort Smith’s Frontier Heritage
Fort Smith, a frontier town on the western border of Arkansas, is rich in culture and history. From the Civil War to the Trail of Tears, Fort Smith played an important role in many events that permanently shaped the social and political landscape in the U.S. The Fort Smith National Historic Site commemorates its long and decorated history for visitors to experience. The site comprises several historical attractions and exhibits at the confluence of the Poteau and Arkansas rivers.
At Belle Point, visitors can see the ruins of the first Fort Smith, dating back to 1817. They can also view the Trail of Tears Overlook, an exhibit along the Arkansas River about the forced removal of Indigenous people to Indian Territory in the 19th century. Fort Smith also has its share of Wild West history that has long inspired tales of outlaws and U.S. marshals. Visitors can see the oldest building in Fort Smith, the commissary, as well Judge Parker’s courtroom and the reconstructed Fort Smith gallows, where many outlaws met their fate.
While you’re there: There are plenty of other ways for groups to get to know Fort Smith’s adventurous past. They can visit the Fort Smith Museum of History or enjoy the natural ecosystem and wildlife of the surrounding area at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center.
Bentonville’s Amazing Art
In the northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville, groups will find the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This museum is more like a museum complex, combining art, architecture and nature to house an impressive permanent collection of modern American artworks. Located on 120-acres of wooded land in a ravine, the museum’s modern design uses locally sourced timber and architectural concrete to integrate the sleek facility into the natural landscape. The museum’s permanent collection includes examples from many eras of American art and across all mediums, from a Chihuly glass piece to several paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.
Groups can choose from several tours of the museum, from a collection highlights tour to an architecture tour. They can eat lunch or grab a coffee in the museum’s restaurant, Eleven, which focuses on crafting delicious and sustainable meals using local ingredients. Groups can walk around the museum’s wooded trails to see additional sculptures and outdoor art and enjoy the serene water features.
While you’re there: Bentonville is home to a surprising number of museums and historic sites. The Peel Museum is a historic home that lets visitors experience a glimpse of life for the Peel family in the 1800s, accompanied by a lush botanical garden. The Museum of Native American History is another popular site for visitors to learn about the first Americans.
A Biblical Collection in Eureka Springs
The Bible Museum is located in the park where the Great Passion Play, an outdoor performance depicting Jesus Christ’s final week on earth, is held. The museum is one attraction of several in the park. It contains 6,000 Bibles in multiple languages from throughout history, as well as 3,000 biblical artifacts. Visitors will learn about the history of the Bible while viewing rare and significant bibles, including Martin Luther’s German translation and an original King James version from 1611.
Admission is included when groups buy a ticket to see the Great Passion Play or come in to view the park’s other attractions. These include Christ of the Ozarks, a 67-foot-tall statue of Christ overlooking the park, as well as the Holy Land Tour, an interactive tour of the park’s replica Middle-Eastern landscape, where they can learn about the region Christ once roamed. The Great Passion Play itself draws in over 100,000 visitors to Eureka Springs each year; this large-scale outdoor performance is a must-see for anyone visiting the area, especially religious groups.
While you’re there: In addition to light hiking and outdoor recreation in the Ozark Mountains, groups can visit the Eureka Springs Historical Museum and take walking tours of the town’s historic downtown. They can also visit churches renowned for their distinct architecture and history, such as the Thorncrown Chapel and Saint Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.