Around the state in 80 steps
Two summer exhibits at the Arkansas State Capitol allow visitors to take a little tour of Arkansas—without leaving the building.
“Finding Your Adventure,” installed in celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, taking place this year, offers viewers a glimpse of each of Arkansas’s seven National Park Service sites through a series of window displays lining hallways that stretch north and south away from the Capitol’s rotunda. Filled with artifacts and representative reproductions selected by staff members at each of the parks and explained in interpretive panels drafted by Capitol historian David Ware in conjunction with Laura Miller, deputy superintendent of the Buffalo National River, the exhibit serves as a fantastic enticement to visit each of the parks themselves. Rather than give the whole thing away, let David Ware and I illuminate our personal highlights from each composition during a clockwise jaunt around the exhibit. Keep an eye out for these items when you visit:
Hot Springs National Park: A set of early-20th century athletic clothes, belonging to a physical instructor on Bathhouse Row, that look to be made of linen and either very thick cotton or wool. Compared to today’s workout clothing, these look chaste to the point of hindering movement. (Ware assures me this costume is really quite comfortable, but anyone who’s ever worn yoga pants will beg to differ.)
Buffalo National River: A half-canoe. No, really.
Arkansas Post National Memorial: Silver pieces and several strands of original trade beads—including some from Murano, Italy. Looking at the millefiori, still common and prized today, it’s hard to believe how long ago the technique was mastered.
Fort Smith National Historic Site: A warrant for robber Henry Starr, signed by “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker himself.
Pea Ridge National Military Park: An original diary carried by a Confederate general. In addition to the writings within, the diary is interesting simply for having been carried under such conditions, which made traveling with fragile pens and bottles of ink tricky business. The general’s desire to keep a record must have been very strong.
Little Rock Central High School: A rifle carried by one of the National Guardsmen. Shudder.
William J. Clinton Birthplace Home: A Little Golden book belonging to little Billy Blythe, as well as a Christmas card signed by “W.J. (Billy) Blythe.”
Another exhibit, which occupies the Capitol’s lower-level gallery (if you’ve ever been to the Capitol Cafe—say, on one of the their famous “catfish Fridays”—you’ll have no trouble finding it) was literally rescued from the dustbin of history. The photographic exhibit “Ghost Signs of Arkansas” was staged more than two decades ago at the Old State House Museum, in conjunction with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, and has happily been resurrected.
During the late 18th and early 19th century, outdoor advertising flourished, and merchants with a bit of exterior wall space (or who could afford someone else’s) would have artisans known as “wall dogs” create eye-catching paintings advertising their businesses, or in the case of “privilege signs,” a major national brand that could be purchased within. As billboards began to dominate the outdoor advertising market, less and less attention was paid to these signs, and eventually they were left to fade or were painted or plastered over. But thanks to lead-based paint and countless renovation surprises, we can still see these trace images across the state—or in the Capitol.
Both exhibits run through the end of August and are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.sos.arkansas.gov.