Old State House building exhibit on history of Arkansas Supreme Court

June 24-30, 2019

By Becca Bona


The oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi River – Arkansas’s Old State House, is located in downtown Little Rock. The building has stood the test of time since the early 1830s, and now operates as a museum.


A shining example of the Greek Revival style, the museum often goes unnoticed to the eyes of busy central Arkansans who consider it a natural part of Little Rock’s scenery. In fact, most remember their last field trip there – usually some time around the fifth grade. 


“You’d think looking at all the school buses on any given day that most of our visitors are school groups,” said Bill Gatewood, Executive Director of the museum. “But that’s not the case, it’s people staying nearby at the hotels.”


In fact, a large portion of the 50,000 or so museum visitors are often travelers and tourists. Nevertheless, people in Little Rock, the entire state and beyond, can take full advantage of the free exhibits and offerings.


“Our mission,” explained Gatewood, “is to collect, preserve and protect Arkansas history.”


This mission also applies to the building and its importance in Arkansas’s history. For instance, the Old State House has witnessed some important events – including the admission of Arkansas to the Union, a fatal knife fight between two sitting legislators, and so much more. 


“We interpret Arkansas history from statehood to the present,” Gatewood continued. “And within that, we have various collecting priorities and various interpreting priorities. The function of the building itself is one of our interpretive priorities.”


Part of that mission includes interpreting the executive, legislative, and judicial branch of Arkansas’s past. Currently, the museum is working to round out their mission with their newest permanent exhibit – the Arkansas Supreme Court Exhibit.  


New kid on the block: Arkansas Supreme Court Exhibit 


The Old State House Museum is home to quite a few permanent collections, but it’s not every day that a new one is added to the roster. The latest in the making focuses on the history of the Arkansas Supreme Court – from scope of jurisdiction, to early justices themselves, as well as important cases tried historically.


Pairing this exhibit with the Old State House makes sense, as Gatewood said – “[It] will be housed in what was the original chamber of the Supreme Court.”


While the Old State House is full speed ahead on getting the exhibit up and running, the catalyst to even consider putting it together in the first place came from outside the museum.


“The real impetus was the Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society,” said marketing director Rae Ann Fields, “and they came to us.”


The Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society approached the Old State House Museum with an idea for an exhibit three years ago – one that would chronicle the history of the Arkansas Supreme Court. An exhibit of this kind has not yet existed in Arkansas. 


“And typically, exhibit projects like this take a long time,” Gatewood explained. The museum will commission a scholar to put together an overview, not unlike a proposal for the exhibit. Things like exhibit design, panel text, and the creation of subsidiary materials like a video or brochure are also be considered. 


And ultimately, as Gatewood said, that can take a lot of time – and money.


Ernie Dumas was the guest curator for this particular exhibit, and he created a 70-page manuscript, from which future exhibit text will be drawn.  


“[Ernie’s] doing an oral history on the supreme court justices,” said Fields, “and he’s very knowledgeable in this area.” 


To-date, the museum staff has been able to produce a video as part of the exhibit, as well as an in-gallery brochure. 


The video – which is currently on display at the museum – was made possible thanks to $7,000 from the Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society, as well as $4,500 from the Arkansas Humanities Council. 


At this point, the State House needs to raise money in order to fund the production of the physical elements of the exhibit. Think interpretive panels complete with imagery and text, as well as custom-built, period similar, mock replica ruling desks. 


These ruling desks will not be mounted to the walls, so while they are a permanent feature of the museum, they can be moved to make room for temporary exhibits. 


Bringing the exhibit to life: A call for artifacts and support


Beyond raising funds to procure the ruling desks and other permanent physical items needed to bring the exhibit to life, the team is in search of artifacts. There’s a small problem with this, however. 


“The challenge with this particular exhibit,” Gatewood explained, “is we’re not so much an archive as we are a museum that collects 3D objects.” And while law books and documents are technically 3D objects, the team has plenty of them. What they are looking for are things that a justice may have had at his desk.


“If it’s a piece of furniture, a robe, eyeglasses – even a shaving mug,” said Gatewood, “We are interested.”  


This period of Arkansas history is particularly fascinating, Fields notes, because “no legal or prior judicial experience” was required of justices in those early days of law and order. This was a time when Arkansas could have been considered the wild West, duels were not uncommon, and most issues which came about involved property. 


“Another fascinating piece of history in the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Fields continued, “is their role in the Brooks-Baxter War – a time when there were two people saying they were legitimately governor – which led to a war.”


Ultimately, the exhibit needs more artifacts, but also more support to become fully realized. While some funds have been raised – the Arkansas Bar Association has put in a pledge as well as the Old State House Museum Associates (the friends of the State House Museum) – the goal is still a long way off. 


It’s easy to get involved. 


Donations can be made with the Old State House online by accessing the following link: http://www.oldstatehouse.com/Support/donations. The donor will need to note in the notes section that it is for “Supreme Court”. Those interested can also donate directly at the museum in donation containers equipped to take credit cards. Contact Rae Ann Fields at 501-324-8649 or raeann.fields@arkansas.gov for more information on how to mail a check.


Those wishing to donate via the Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society can donate via mailing a check payable to ASCHS at the following address: 


ASCHS, 625 Marshall Street, Suite 1500, Little Rock, Arkansas, 72201(ATTN: Ava Hicks). 


Both the museum and historical society are nonprofits. 

In the meantime, visit the museum to watch the video and learn more about the history of the Arkansas Supreme Court. 


The Old State House Museum is located on 300 West Markham in downtown Little Rock, and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday – Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Exhibits are free and open to the public. 


Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Old State House Museum




1. It’s not every day that the Old State House Museum adds a new permanent exhibit to their line-up. The new exhibit focuses on the history of the Arkansas Supreme Court – from scope of jurisdiction, to the justices, and famous cases tried throughout history.  (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)


2. This photograph illustrates the imagined finished exhibit focused on the history of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Viewers will be able to read information on panels, as well as the information on the period-similar ruling desk replicas.  (Photo courtesy of Old State House Museum)


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