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Temporary Exhibit Space Open During Walmart Visitor Center Renovation

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Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
    Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
    Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
    Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Walmart Visitor Center temporary exhibit space
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Because of an expanding story to tell, and a need for a more modern appeal, the Walmart Visitor Center in Bentonville is open in a temporary venue while the main location undergoes renovation.

“The changes you’re going to see in the visitor center are really going to be dramatic, but at the same time will retain the essence of the Walmart Visitor Center you’ve seen all this time,” Alan Dranow, director of Walmart brand communication, explained.

Plans call for the current visitor center, which includes the original Walton 5 & 10 space, to expand into the first floor of the adjacent Terry Block building, giving the center a bigger presence on the corner of Central and Main streets in the historic downtown. It is an approximate square footage increase of 20 percent.

The current center’s lobby will be decreased in size in order to create a 32-seat theater behind it. The theater will show looping videos, be used for programming, guest speakers, and Walmart story time. The latter will entail past associates talking about their experiences with Sam Walton and Walmart.

In the lobby, a portion of the original tin ceiling that Sam Walton saw when he bought the building will be exposed. He covered it up with a dropped ceiling. For sale in the lobby will be a variety of souvenirs, vintage toys, and classic candy. There will also be items associated with Sam Walton, such as yellow legal pads, which he was known for always carrying around. Dranow said they will also expand the merchandise to represent what would have been found in the Walton 5 & 10, such as push brooms. Items will be branded with the visitor center logo.

Ralph Appelbaum Associates of New York created the experiential design for the center’s new museum-quality space. Appelbaum produced the interpretive design for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

Around the perimeter of the exhibit space will be a timeline with maps and information. Touch tables will make elements more hands-on. In the middle, alongside the timeline, will be double-sided display cases. The center will contain approximately 3,800 artifacts. Items on show represent the growth of Walmart, the early days of Bentonville, and some insights into the lives of the Walton family.

Examples include hand written ledgers from the earliest years, a section of floor that represents the 100 millionth square foot of retail sale space in Walmart, and the company’s expansion in the international market, as well as the Sam’s Club and Neighborhood Market brands.

Artifacts include photos of the early days of Bentonville platted with one public square and 136 residential lots in late 1837. Pictures from each decade to the present illustrate the growth of the town and Walmart, as well as styles and trends.

Personal objects include Helen Walton’s wedding dress, and a video titled “Building Relationships,” the story of the Walton Family. A case about Sam Walton’s love of hunting has photos of his hunting dogs along with Walmart’s private-label dog food, first stocked on shelves in the 1980s. Originally called “Walmart Dog Food,” the product was renamed “Ol’Roy,” the name of his dog.

At eye level for children will be drawers with handles made from old Walmart shopping carts, another chronological element. The drawers will contain interactive materials, games and scrapbooks.

Sam Walton’s office will still be preserved within the center, but the renovation will offer a view of it from the front and side instead of the singular vantage point it had before.

New will be the exit at the corner of the building through the center’s new Spark Shop and Café. It will sell local baked goods, coffees and ice cream treats. The name comes from the symbol at the end of the Walmart logo, which represents a “spark of inspiration.”

“The purpose of the Walmart Visitor Center is to inspire, not to just educate about the Walmart heritage and culture,” Dranow said. “It will have features that will inspire the Sam Walton’s of tomorrow.”

He explained that the center was in need of renovation to broaden its appeal to the audience, and to make it more contemporary and interactive. But also, the company has grown significantly since the visitor center first opened.

“We’re very much a global company now,” Dranow explained. “When the visitor center opened in 1990 we weren’t. We have that much more of a story to tell.”

Dranow said new things are discovered daily. “Just the other day we discovered something relevant to Sam’s love of aviation,” he said, adding that it was important “because that’s a very big part of how we grew.” He added, “We have discovered new artifacts like handwritten notes from Sam that show what a visionary he was.”

Upwards of 60,000 people visit the center annually. “We expect that to grow,” Dranow said.

The visitor center is considered an important brand communication tool for recruits. Many of the visitors to the center are Walmart associates, suppliers and friends of the Walmart family. People that sign the guestbook seem to fit one of those categories or know someone who works or worked at the giant discount store. “Or they have a story about Sam [Walton],” Dranow added with a smile. “Everybody has a story about Sam.”

“There’s a lot going on in downtown Bentonville,” Dranow said. “We needed now to be a part of that. Sam and Helen [Walton] always stressed how important it is to be part of the community.”

Currently under construction, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will be a major new art museum and cultural center located within walking distance of the Bentonville square. Don Bacigalupi, executive director of Crystal Bridges, recently announced that the museum will open to the public on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. The museum, the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, is expected to exhibit one of the finest collections of American art in the world. This premier art institution will be dedicated to American art and artists, learning, and community gatherings. During the building period, Crystal Bridges at the Massey is open downtown and hosts traveling exhibits and museum progress updates.

Also planned for the northeast corner of the city’s town square is 21c Museum Hotel, expected to open in 2012. With more than 12,000 square feet of exhibition, meeting and event space, 21c will present curated, rotating exhibitions, dynamic installations and live art events to complement Crystal Bridges. The preliminary plan features a five-story contemporary building with an active street level presence. With 130 rooms, including suites, the hotel will offer a spa, fitness center and other amenities. It also will feature a restaurant that supports sustainable agriculture and serves contemporary cuisine showcasing locally grown and produced ingredients.

“It’s an exciting time for downtown Bentonville,” Dranow said.

He added that Walmart felt it was important to expand into existing space instead of a new building. “The visitor center and the Terry Block building itself are artifacts,” Dranow explained. “The Terry Block building is the oldest structure on the downtown square.”

During the renovation process, a temporary exhibit space is open at 110 W. Central, just around the corner from the original visitor center. Items have been put into a more current environment than previously to give a better sense of the Walmart brand. The temporary spot does not include Sam Walton’s office or his truck. Those items are being preserved until they are put in the new center.

Dranow said the temporary exhibit space is a place people can visit and still get the inspiration of Walton and the company until the renovation is complete, which is expected to be in the late spring of 2011.


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