At popular attractions in Little Rock, Arkansas, groups can enjoy world-class art, look back at women’s fashions, and soak in state and national history
By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
When it comes to tourist attractions in Little Rock, the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum often comes to mind first, as Bill Clinton is undoubtedly Arkansas’ chief claim to fame. While the riverfront shrine to America’s 42nd president figures prominently on tour itineraries, Little Rock offers a number of other engaging, if not nationally known, museums.
Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
After being closed for renovation for four years, the former Arkansas Arts Center in MacArthur Park emerged in April 2023 shiny and new. Fresh from a $155 million redesign by the renowned Chicago architectural firm Studio Gang, the newly named museum, built in 1937, is distinguished by a sinuous central passageway. Lit by high clerestory windows, the space creates better flow while lending an airy feel. Revamped and expanded galleries house the museum’s global collection of art that spans six centuries. General admission is free.
The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts’ beautifully landscaped 11-acre grounds feature walking paths, outdoor sculpture and plantings that highlight the Natural State’s biodiversity. A performing arts theater offers diverse programming, from plays and concerts to dance performances and film screenings. Park Grill, a full-service restaurant, and the Cultural Living Room, a place to socialize over coffee or cocktails, provide views of MacArthur Park.
MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock
Built in 1840 as a frontier military post, the historic Arsenal Building in MacArthur Park presents exhibits on the Civil War, World War I and World War II. It saw pivotal exchanges between Federal and Confederate troops during the Civil War. In 1880, one of the country’s foremost military heroes, WWII General Douglas MacArthur, was born there when his father was stationed at the arsenal. Admission is free.
ESSE Purse Museum
Decade by decade, the permanent exhibit What’s Inside: A Century of Women in Handbags, 1900-1999 examines the evolution of purses and women’s roles in 20th century society. Along with purses, artifacts on display include their contents—sunglasses, gloves, cigarette lighters, lipstick, keys, matchbooks—and photos of the period.
Showcasing the collection of owner Anita Davis, ESSE is one of only two purse museums in the world, the other being in South Korea. Housed in a former wholesale warehouse, the museum is located in Little Rock’s fun ’n’ funky SoMa (South Main Street) neighborhood. Its shop sells purses of all kinds, plus scarves and jewelry.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
State-of-the-art exhibits, including full-scale replicas of the White House’s Oval Office and Cabinet Room, recall the 1990s, when Arkansas’ most famous son served as the nation’s chief executive. Also known as the Clinton Presidential Center, the dramatic glass building cantilevers over the Arkansas River, representing Clinton’s vision of a “bridge to the 21st century.” It is one of 13 presidential libraries overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Exhibition space features video stations, interactive displays, photos of important events and family moments, and various memorabilia. Gifts the Clintons received from visiting dignitaries include a:
Solid gold, jewel-encrusted sword from Saudi Arabia
Set of Cartier leopard head cufflinks from Pakistan
Tenor saxophone with mother-of-pearl keys from the Czech Republic
Other artifacts on display:
The president’s 1993 Cadillac limousine
Hillary Clinton’s second inaugural gown, designed by Oscar de la Renta
Election campaign paraphernalia—buttons, posters, advertising
A table setting from a White House state dinner
A timeline of Clinton’s eight years in office looks at national and world events that took place during his two terms. Alcoves are devoted to specific subjects like the economy, education, drugs, crime, domestic violence and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “The Impeachment Battle” chronicles the 1999 proceedings in the U.S. House and Senate. “The Work of the First Lady” focuses on Hillary Clinton’s efforts to promote women’s and children’s rights (through 2001).
The Clinton Presidential Center just announced plans for a major expansion that will be designed by Studio Gang, the same firm that transformed Little Rock’s recently reopened Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
The center’s 42 Bar and Table, with indoor and outdoor seating, overlooks the Clinton Presidential Bridge on the Arkansas River. At night, hourly LED light shows illuminate the 1899 railroad bridge, which was converted into a pedestrian walkway in 2011.
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
This museum celebrates the African American experience in Arkansas and is one of only nine nationally accredited black history museums in the country. Visitors can view artwork by black artists with an Arkansas connection, listen to firsthand accounts of life in the segregated South and learn about Little Rock’s once-thriving West Ninth Street District, now a mostly vacant commercial area. In its heyday, the six-block stretch bustled with black-owned stores, restaurants, theaters and music clubs.
The permanent exhibition, as of this writing, is closed for renovation. The third floor’s Arkansas Black Hall of Fame honors civil rights and community activists, innovators and entrepreneurs. Items made by local artisans are offered in the museum store Arkansas Made, Black Crafted.
The museum resides in the footprint of the Mosaic Templars of America national headquarters, a prominent African American fraternal organization founded in 1882. Mosaic Templars provided illness, death and burial insurance during an era when few basic services were available to black citizens. The original 1911 building burned in 2005; the current one opened in 2008.
Little Rock’s Old State House Museum
Galleries in Arkansas’ former state capitol, a Greek Revival gem constructed in 1833, chronicle chapters in the state’s colorful past, with emphasis on political and women’s history. Items of interest range from Civil War battle flags to inaugural gowns of governors’ wives. On view are chambers once used by the state legislature and Supreme Court. The Old State House was the setting for President Bill Clinton’s election-night celebrations in 1992 and 1996. Admission is free.
Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock
Pioneer lore comes alive at this living history museum, which features actors that breathe life into 1800s Little Rock. Guests also may have a chance to interact with a demonstrator who will share details about his or her work, whether it’s blacksmithing, cooking, doing the wash or printing a newspaper. One gallery spotlights Arkansas’ first people—the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw. Also showcased are Arkansas-made furniture, textiles, pottery and other crafts. Preserved buildings at the museum include the oldest home (circa 1827) in Arkansas. Across the street is the 1850s Log House Farmstead.
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Lead Photo – Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, Little Rock