Since 1972, the Historic Arkansas Museum has been in one man’s (extremely capable) hands. As Bill Worthen prepares to retire later this year, he offers a unique perspective on the institution he’s nurtured these past 44 years: its history as told through the museum holdings he most admires
“THIS IS JUST absolutely fun for me,” says longtime Historic Arkansas Museum Director Bill Worthen, pulling open the door of the museum’s 1,500-square-foot on-site storage space. “This is the kind of thing I just love to do.”
He flicks a switch, and the fluorescent lights overhead begin to blink to life. And though I’m not sure what to expect—this is, after all, my first time in the belly of a museum—I’ve got to say it’s not what I’m seeing as the shadows filling the cinder-block-walled space begin to take shape. Which is this: furniture everywhere, arranged in neat aisles of kempt antiques. A hodgepodge of cane chairs and wooden clocks and end tables. Orderly racks of shotguns; racks of fine art. I mean, it’s like the prop department for an inflated-budget film titled Arkansas: The Movie. Or like your grandmother’s mysteriously overstuffed basement—if your grandmother is, you know, Arkansas.
“And this isn’t all of it,” Bill says, noticing my wide-eyed stupor. “We’ve got 4,000 square feet off-site.”
As we walk through the space, I realize the man who’s been helming Arkansas’ foremost historic museum for more than four decades is, at heart, a consummate tour guide, a guy with more Arkansas facts and figures on the tip of his tongue than most of us could hope to muster in a lifetime. “Now, I don’t want to shock you, but I will show you the one antebellum nude we know was done in Arkansas. I’m gonna cover my eyes,” he says, pulling out a sliding pegboard rack dotted with framed portraits, landscapes, sketches—a gallery in miniature. “He was so proud, he actually signed it: Henry Byrd. He rarely signed his work.”
Bill has stories for the other works, too—one of the very few antebellum oil paintings to include an African-American; a painting by George Catlin (who documented Native Americans on canvas) of Mrs. John Drennen (the wife of the man who oversaw their removal from the territory). In fact, everywhere we look, there’s a story. There’s the Edward Durrell Stone-designed children’s furniture—“very modern, er, moderne?” says Bill—and the early-20th-century clocks made in Texarkana. (“Who’d’ve guessed that such nice clocks could be made there?”) There are the baskets and the Bowie knives and the hand-carved walking sticks. And while he’s effusive with stories of the objects’ provenances, bubbling over with that enthusiasm reserved for folks who are living their life’s work, he never mentions the one thing they all have in common—the antebellum nudes, the moderne chifferobes, the silver-plated shotguns, the what-have-yous.
They’re all here because of him.
To understand this, you’ve got to rewind the tapes about 44 years. It’s 1972, and Bill, then a young history teacher, has just assumed the mantle of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, “more of a historic-preservation project than a museum,” as he says, with a staff of six. The ATR is moving into its third decade at a time when the idea of what a museum could be is beginning to mature—moving beyond the preservation of historic homes and into a more visitor-friendly experience—and Bill sees potential everywhere. His first task? Seek accreditation for the museum. His second? To bring those standards of professionalism to the houses on the grounds. “We no longer had Ms. Loughborough’s taste and vision, so we had to fall back on something,” Bill says. “So we fell back on research.”
For the next few decades, Bill and his team devoted themselves to researching the state’s artisan tradition, first in an effort to fill the museum houses with period-relevant, Arkansas-made pieces, and later, once they’d learned of the many treasures out there begging to be preserved, to understand and celebrate a century and a half of Arkansas creatives. In the 1980s, the museum created the “Arkansas Made” program, dedicating itself to procuring and preserving for perpetuity Arkansas artisan goods—“decorative, mechanical and fine art”—made in the past 200 years. (In 2001, the expanded museum changed from the Arkansas Territorial Restoration to the Historic Arkansas Museum, further honoring that commitment.) These days, though it’s hard for Bill to pin down an exact number, the museum’s holdings now number some 75,000.
“It’s so much fun to show people something about their home state that they didn’t know,” he says. “You know, Arkansas used to have a bit of an inferiority complex. I don’t think it has that now, but there’s still a residue of that We don’t have any great artists, whatever. Well, we do. In a lot of ways, we have as good of an artisan tradition as anybody—and how much fun is it to open that to folks here in the state? That’s what I love about this.”
Which is what brought me here. A few months ago, as Bill began to wind down toward his retirement (which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the institution he’s shaped and guided these past 44 years—picking up where Louise left off, filling in the gaps), I’d come to him with a question: Would he be willing to share the 10 museum holdings he holds most dear? Or would that be too hard?
“It actually didn’t take me all that long,” he says as we sit down to chat about those 10 things in his conference room, where a striking oil portrait of Louise silently takes stock of our conversation. “To tell the story, these are the objects.”
FANCY DANCE BUSTLE
“OUR PERMANENT EXHIBIT We Walk in Two Worlds: The Caddo, Osage & Quapaw in Arkansas chronicles the Native American presence here. We invited three nations—the Osage, the Caddo and the Quapaw—to come here and work with us. And all of them were eager to come. I was naively thinking, Oh, well, we’ll just tell one story. It’ll be the Indian story and the white man’s story. No, no, no. You have three stories. You have three different nations, and each one has a distinctive history and a very clear, different language, different mythology, values.
“They really came up with the title, which has a lot of different implications: It’s the historical world and the present world, it’s a world of whites and Indians, and it’s a world, even within themselves, of the values that are sort of pulling them apart in a lot of ways. But it’s also a world of coming together. And the object that best describes this concept for me in the whole exhibit is this dance bustle. It was made by Ardina Moore, who was one of the elders we were working with. She’s the granddaughter of the principal chief of the Quapaw. Her grandson became a fancy dancer, dancing in competitions—just an expression of Native American artistry. So she made this fancy-dance bustle that he’d wear on his back. Well, he loved Mickey Mouse. And so, you know, the combination of the two worlds this represents is just such a beautiful statement of, We’re making the best of these two worlds. It’s one of my favorites.”
PAINTING OF DON JOSEPH
“THIS PORTRAIT is of the commandant of Arkansas Post, Don Joseph Bernard Valliere d’Hauterive. He was French, but at the time, Louisiana was owned by the Spanish. They sort of contracted out with the French, who knew the local area better. This was painted by Jose de Salazar, who was a very well-known New Orleans painter. It could have been painted in New Orleans, but artists were notorious for traveling to wherever they could get a good commission. If you had two or three people you were going to paint, it would make the trip worthwhile.
“The reason this painting is one of my favorites is because it was given by Elsie and Howard Stebbins. And they were sort of mentors in the business of collecting Arkansas. They started collecting Arkansas stuff in the 1940s and 1950s and were just terrific students of the past.
“There was a direct descendant of Don Joseph who still owned the portrait. In 1955 or thereabouts, Mr. Stebbins came to terms with them—they could use the money, and Mr. Stebbins obviously wanted the painting. We lusted over this painting for years, and the Stebbinses finally decided they’d let us have it. And it really is one of the finest objects of early Arkansas.”
“WILLIAM E. WOODRUFF knew that as soon as Arkansas was named a territory, somebody would be named printer to the territory, and if you were the printer, you were responsible for all of the official government documents. You might make your living making a newspaper—a tough living—but if you had this government contract, you would have a leg up. He hustled a used Ramage press and brought it to Arkansas territory, landed at Arkansas Post and started the newspaper immediately upon getting here.
“We wanted to have the kind of press that was actually used in Arkansas Post and at this site, where he printed the Arkansas Gazette from 1824 to 1827. For three years, that building was the sort of nerve center, the information center of the entire territory. So we sent Andy Zawacki, our conservator, to do some research on the Ramage press. Turns out that Ramage presses did not have interchangeable parts—you made one press, you sent it away, you made another. They weren’t uniform. So we said, OK, we’re going to need to make one. John Horn, a local printing expert, helped us. He paid the expense for having two presses made—we got one, and he got the other. It’s a precise replica of the one Woodruff brought here.
“Our restoration of the print shop was completed just a few years ago. She had some reasons for it, but Ms. Loughborough actually tore down what was left of the original two-story print shop in 1941. It had been changed somewhat—the wall had fallen in; there’d been a fire. There were enough differences that we cut her some slack, saying, We understand why you made the mistake you made.”
DWIGHT MISSION SAMPLER
“THE OSAGE CAPTIVE is a fairly well-known story in the Native American world. There was an Osage girl, Maria James, who was captured by the Cherokee and was put into the school at Dwight Mission, which was started near Russellville. The school was run by missionaries, and they taught students the social graces. The sampler was the sort of defining statement of the students’ abilities in needlework, as it were. And these samplers can tell such a depth of story: the Native American and the white relationship, the education of women, the demonstration of competency in women’s work, all of those kinds of things, and, you know, bringing Christianity to the ‘heathens,’ as these missionaries were doing—that’s in quotes, by the way.
“This sampler, made by Nancy Graves at Dwight Mission, is the oldest known Native American sampler. And the way we got it was so much fun, too. Our curator here—just another great person—is Swannee Bennett. As Swannee was bidding on this, he was on the phone. The Sotheby’s operator who was bidding for him said, ‘What’s that going on in the background? Is that a shot?’ Swannee said, ‘Well, yes, I’m trying to kill some ducks here!’ He was bidding on this from the duck blind. I think he killed his limit that day.
“It turned out that the other bidder was the Smithsonian. It would have been great in the National Museum of the American Indian, there’s no question. But it’s also great here, because it’s an Arkansas story.”
ARKANSAS TRAVELER PRINT
“THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER was a cultural phenomenon. It was a piece of music. Then it was a dialogue: Where does this road go? It doesn’t go anywhere. Why don’t you fix the roof? Well, it’s raining. Why don’t you fix the roof when it’s not raining? Well, it don’t need fixin’ then! Hee Haw kind of stuff, but it’s classic. Folklorists see it as one of the quintessential statements of regional folklore in America.
“Turns out that an Arkansas artist managed to capture it, a fellow by the name of Edward Payson Washbourne. He painted this picture of his acquaintance, Sandy Faulkner, who was the original Traveler—the guy who first told the story of being lost and going up to the squatter’s cabin and trying to get directions, and the squatter just would not give him any information. All the while, the squatter’s playing the first half of the tune. And then finally, the Traveler says, Why don’t you play the turn of the tune?, and the squatter says, Well that’s all there is. And the Traveler says, Mind if I? And he plays the second half. And then he’s welcomed into the house, given all the whiskey that’s left. The way Sandy Faulkner told the story, it was about the end of the frontier—class or economic level. And it was reconciliation through the magic of music. And I love that story.
“But unfortunately, when the story caught on all over the country, and when the people telling it were outside of Arkansas—when it wasn’t Sandy Faulkner—it became a joke on the state. The last line of one of the most popular stories is: He hasn’t had the courage to visit Arkansas since. All through the last half of the 19th century, people would complain about the damage the Traveler had done to our reputation. But one of things we’ve been able to do is to help re-establish the Arkansas Traveler as a great creation of Arkansas folklore. This print was the first Traveler print that came out, and it acknowledged the artist, who was an Arkansas boy, and it acknowledged Sandy Faulkner—an Arkansas boy, too—as the original Traveler. It’s the most essential statement of the Arkansas Traveler image, and it was given by one of our beloved commission members, who died just last year, Parker Westbrook.”
“IT’S THE OLDEST HOUSE in the city. It’s on its original site; it’s forever been right there. It was a grog shop, a place for people getting together and being convivial. You know, what could be better than hanging around a bar in early Arkansas and having a little flask of grog and enjoying life with your friends?
“I have all sorts of fond memories of the Hinderliter House. On opening day of the Territorial Restoration in 1941, my mother was a volunteer tour guide in the house. And during our Christmas open house, we do country dancing in there. I am, oh, how many generations … Well, I’m old Arkansas from before the territorial period on my mother’s side, and from the territorial period on my father’s side. My dad taught us how to do the Virginia Reel to music that was actually being played on an old wind-up record player. That was part of our education. Now I lead the Virginia Reel. We have country dancers who really know what they’re doing, and they’re great, but they let me sit in and lead a couple of dances.”
GIVING VOICE MONUMENT
“AS A MUSEUM, we tell our stories through objects. But enslaved folks weren’t able to leave a great material legacy behind because of the nature of their situation. We realized that in order to tell those stories, theater might be a good way. And that’s when we latched onto a particularly gifted fellow named Curtis Tate. Curtis was an actor who grew up in the Children’s Theater at the Arkansas Arts Center, and he was a creative entrepreneur in a lot of ways. We hired him to be our first full-time interpreter. He really sort of turned this institution around as far as our understanding of our African-American heritage is concerned.
“One of Curtis’ dreams was to have every enslaved person connected to a property on the museum’s grounds to be represented by some way in a monument. And it was one of those things where it was a nice sentiment, but how do you realize that? We knew we’d have to do a lot of research. Unfortunately, Curtis died tragically. But we were able to find a number of names, and a number of, just, numbers, basically—unnamed people who were only documented through numbers in the slave schedules of the census. You’re talking about real people and, just, a mark. For the entire legacy of their life here.
“With the Giving Voice monument, the idea was that we might give those people a voice, even if it’s a teeny-tiny voice. It was Curtis’ vision, and we were finally able to dedicate it a few years ago. The monument’s out there, and every single person our research could come up with is there—some of them full names, some of them one name, some of them just an enumeration.”
“W.O. ROBERTSON made this rifle in Little Rock in 1870—a period when, really, most guns were being made in a factory. It had all the bells and whistles. I mean, little compartments, compression caps for firing, a place for powder, a sheath and a knife, silver decoration—just one of these statements of, I am a gunsmith and I can make a gun that does anything. Which is sort of sad, because it was right at the end of the artisan tradition.
“But one of the things about it that’s so important to me is that this was one of the first objects we bought in auction after we really committed to the Arkansas Made thing. And I vividly remember, it was an auction over in Lonoke—Mac McCrary had died, and it was in his collection. We were bidding on it, and it was just so exciting. I think we got the gun for like $3,000—it’s worth far more than that. But at the time, that was a formidable amount of money. And it represented the commitment of the museum to really, seriously go after Arkansas-made stuff: This is the direction we want to go in; this is what we can show off to the state.”
“THE HERB SOCIETY of America’s Arkansas Unit has two other herb gardens in Little Rock. There’s one at the Governor’s Mansion and then one at the School for the Blind. My mother, Mary Fletcher Worthen, did the research for the one here and came up with a little booklet called Frontier Pharmacy, which details the herbal remedies early settlers and Native Americans used. Some of them definitely work; some of them are … questionable. We had to discourage my mother from wanting to put in opium poppies—she finally realized that being hauled away to the pokey was not what she really wanted to do. But she, you know, really wanted to be historically accurate.
“The Herb Society has been doing this for 40 years, and I’m so appreciative of volunteers like them. The Master Gardeners, the Herb Society, the Colonial Dames … these are all people who’ve stuck with us over the years. They make this place so much better than it would be without ’em.”
JAMES BLACK KNIVES
“THE CARRIGAN KNIFE was given to us by the Prather family. Because of this knife and its lineage, we know who owned it from the time it left James Black’s shop in Washington, Arkansas, until now. It’s only been in the ownership of two different families, and it was documented in 1919—a photograph of it, a story about it. So we have a really strong legacy of that knife. And it sort of opened our eyes to the possibility of this other knife, the Bowie No. 1, which came up for auction in 1992. We had to sort of cobble together donations from here and there—$32,000 for one knife. Everyone agrees it’s probably worth three times that.
“Now the Bowie No. 1 clearly came from the same shop. It was definitely made by the same person. It says Bowie No. 1 on the plate—an old, old marking. We don’t know whether James Black did it or whether someone who owned it did it later, and then you ask yourself a question: If you had a knife that you knew was related to the Bowie family, and arguably the first Bowie knife, how would you mark it if you wanted to perpetuate the story of this knife? Probably “Bowie No. 1.” So, we may have Jim Bowie’s or his brother Rezin’s knife down there, or not. And that’s one of the great things about collecting: You never know for sure.”
Image: The Carrigan Knife; James Black, Arkansas; c. 1830; steel, walnut scales, silver wrap, plated silver, tang and ricasso; guardless Bowie type; guardless coffin-shaped handle wrapped with silver; 10 1/4-inch overall length; gift of Mary Delia Carrigan Prather