LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkanas is a state that many people may not give much thought about when planning their vacations. Often considered a “flyover state,” it has much to offer a traveler in search of adventure, culture, or a natural refuge.
Home to 52 state parks and some of the most modern museums one can want to explore, as well as hot springs and musical centers, and well known as one of the major hotbeds of the civil rights movement, Arkansas is both naturally beautiful and contains some must-see, man-made marvels. Here are four of them:
—Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville celebrates both art and nature a setting that explores the power of art with the beauty of surrounding natural landscape.
The museum, founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, takes its name from nearby Crystal Spring and the bridge construction incorporated in the building design by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie.
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Crystal Bridges, which opened in 2011, is home to a permanent collection that features American masterworks dating from Colonial to contemporary times. It specializes in art from the region, but also displays national and international exhibits, and is always on view to the public free of charge (admission is sponsored by Wal-Mart for all but occasional temporary exhibitions).
The museum is both surrounded by and incorporated into 120 acres of forests and gardens, using them as part of the museum itself, and as a place to explore outdoor art and pieces. Six pedestrian trails wind through the campus, connecting the museum to the neighborhood at large and building a community space and encouraging connections to the arts and nature. The building itself is a work of art, and the educational programs offered by Crystal Bridges make art available, relatable and tangible for patrons of all ages.
—The Old State House Museum is a great way for visitors to experience Arkansas history. You can take a guided tour, use a self-guided tour map or cell phone tour guide at your own pace and choosing only what interests you, or schedule a group tour. No reservations are needed for self-guided tours or hourly guided tours (which are 50 minutes long). Reservations are needed for group tours of 10 or more.
The Old State House in Little Rock is home to many permanent exhibits that incorporate the history of the building, the collections and significant areas of Arkansas history (art, time periods, books, clothing, influential people, and more). Some of these include “The Legacy of Arkansas Women,” Political History, First Families and Governors of Arkansas, Period Rooms, Legislative Chambers, and Dresses of the First Ladies.
The Old State House Museum was given a fresh coat of paint this year. This lovely building, once the home of politics in the state until the roof caved in and it was moved just down the street to a larger building (the roof has since been replaced), will be a favorite stop on your tour of Arkansas.
—The Museum of Native American History in Bentonville is home to many authentic Native American artifacts from a wide array of locations and time periods (arranged in chronological order). The large and diverse exhibits of stone tools, arrowheads, headdresses, pottery and more span not only the Arkansas area but the U.S. at large and South America. While there, you can see such artifacts as a Cheyenne scalp shirt, Blackfoot headdress and Lone Dog’s winter count on a buffalo hide. Learn how early man hunted with the Atlatl. See an amazing painting done by the famous White Swan, relics from the Buffalo Bill show, and a monstrous mastodon skull and tusks as you walk in. This museum is truly impressive, not just in scope, but in variety and quality. These artifacts have held up over time, some as old as 14,000 years. Featuring free self guided audio tours (with remotes that you can press the number of the exhibit you are looking at for more information) the museum is open every day except Sunday.
—Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock is still a functioning high school. This school became famous (or rather infamous) in 1957 when it was the focus of a hotbed national debate over civil rights and integration in public schools in the South.
Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus dissented with the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling when nine African-American high school students attempted to exercise their legal right to obtain an education from Central High, which was then an all-white school. Named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” the year it was built (1927), Central High would be the location of ugly scenes and riots, and a place the entire world watched as desegregation laws were challenged.
The integration in Little Rock was a major test of the United States’ will and ability to enforce the African-American population’s rights against Southern mobs. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to use federal troops and local police to ensure the rights of these African-American children to attend Central High, he became the first president since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period to do so. Eight of the nine students made it through the first year at Central High, with one being expelled. The only senior, Ernest Green, became as the first African-American graduate of the school in 1958. His ceremony was attended by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Situated just across an intersection from the school, the Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center contains interactive audio and visual exhibits on the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High. Hearing oral history at the listening stations from the actual participants in their own voices is amazing.
The Little Rock 9 (as these brave students came to be known) were national symbols of determination and equality, bringing the nation further along on its path to equality, as the school itself became a symbol of outdated laws and the progress still needed to be made. Learn more about the school, the times and the students who heralded in a new era in the South and in the country. Challenge yourself on your own knowledge of the Constitution and rights under the law. Read the books written by the students who experienced the integration.