Bentonville’s ‘other’ museum worth visiting, and people are

by Paul Gatling ( 1,943 views 

MoNAH owner David Bogle stands in front of a mural painted by Kelly Green depicting Plains Indians. The Bentonville museum’s attendance jumped 25% in 2016, and projections are trending higher this year.

A Bentonville museum devoted to the history of Native Americans had its highest annual attendance numbers in 2016. The Museum of Native American History (MoNAH), which opened at its current facility in June 2008, says it welcomed about 35,000 visitors last year, up 25% from 27,831 visitors in 2015.

Charlotte Buchanan-Yale, the museum’s director, said attendance projections this year are trending to climb higher. The museum is starting to become less of a secret and more of a popular tourist attraction in Bentonville. At least that’s what owner David Bogle believes. Bogle, born and raised in Bentonville, is a registered Cherokee Indian, and has built the museum into what it is today over the past 15 years.

What began as a collection of arrowheads has evolved into one of the largest and most diverse collection of Native American artifacts anywhere. There is also a large research library in the museum.

“I tell people all the time, we are an art museum,” Bogle said. “Because that’s what we have here. We have the finest pieces of Native American art in the country. But just as important, we are a history museum. What we do with these pieces is teach Native American history. And that is my goal here. To try and expand people’s knowledge.”

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

MoNAH, like the much more publicized Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, does not charge an admission fee to visitors. The museum’s operations are entirely funded by Bogle and his family. He doesn’t accept any grants or financial support.

David Bogle is the son of Bentonville philanthropists Bob and Marilyn Bogle. Bob Bogle was Sam Walton’s first manager at the Walton 5-10 on the Bentonville square, and is credited with proposing the name “Wal-Mart” for what is now retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Bogle declined to say how much of an annual operating budget the museum requires. It maintains five full-time employees, led by Buchanan-Yale and curator Matt Rowe, and numerous volunteers. Rowe, who lives in Oklahoma and works on-site in Bentonville a couple of days a week, has worked for Bogle since the museum opened at 202 S.W. O St., a little more than a mile west of the downtown square on Highway 72.

“This is not a commercial venture,” Rowe said. “What we are about is education. This is 14,000 years of [Native American] history. We want to show the big picture.”

The big picture of exhibits, videos and displays is arranged in a chronological order, starting with the early Paleo period and moving through the Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian and Historic periods of the early 1900s. Visitors are given a hand-held device before beginning their exploration of the museum. It’s an audio wand made by Tour-Mate Systems, a Canadian company that manufacturers interpretive audio tours for museums, art galleries and other historic sites.

There are 128 numbered displays throughout the museum in different rooms and time periods. By punching in the corresponding number on the Tour-Mate, a 10- to 30-second description of the display plays. Bogle said the devices have a dual purpose.

“We have lots of school groups, so it keeps the kids going in a specific manner throughout the museum, numerically, and if they’re listening to something, it keeps the museum quiet,” he said. “Without these it would be mass chaos and no real learning.”

With the Tour-Mate, visitors can learn about the Sweetwater Biface, considered to be the thinnest knapped stone artifact in North America.

Rowe said about 95% of the museum’s contents belong to Bogle. Other items are on loan from collectors, or are owned by the University of Arkansas Museum, which closed in 2003.

Bogle began building his collection in 2002, when he bought a large arrowhead collection from John Fryer, a former Bentonville school administrator, and later the city’s mayor in the 1990s. Fryer was Bogle’s scoutmaster when he was a boy, and the two families were longtime friends. In fact, Fryer and Marilyn Bogle had been friends since childhood, growing up in the east Arkansas town of Augusta. As adults, Bogle said his parents were instrumental in persuading Fryer and his wife, Juanita, to leave the Delta region and move to Bentonville, where there was more opportunity.

Bogle recalled that in 2002, he had just finished construction of a guest house on his property on North Main Street in Bentonville, and was looking for a “dramatic” design element to adorn the wall of a large staircase. John Fryer was in poor health at the time, and Bogle paid a visit to his house, where he noticed Fryer’s display of arrowheads.

“He had put together frames and frames and frames of arrowheads; all the way around his living room,” Bogle recalled. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I want going up on that wall.’ So I arranged to buy those frames, and I wanted to know more about what I had.”

Bogle’s research led him to Kentucky the following week to attend an Indian artifacts trade show.

“I went to as many seminars and heard as many speakers as I could and just kind of got the bug,” he said. “Then it was kind of like a snowball.”

Over the next few years, Bogle’s collection grew, so much so that the museum’s first public display was in 2004, in a converted home near Bogle’s residence on North Main Street. In the spring of 2007, when the museum outgrew that space, Bogle bought the current facility on Southwest O Street — and an additional 1.34 acres — for $1.58 million. Back then, it was a 3,455-square-foot structure that was once an event venue called The Sterling House.

The museum officially opened in June 2008. Since then, Bogle has renovated the property three times to its current footprint of about 13,500 square feet.

“I’ve built on all four sides, and I think I’ve maxed out every direction I can go.”

Bentonville attracts museum goers from around the world, largely because of Crystal Bridges, which opened in November 2011. Those tourists are also finding their way to MoNAH with more regularity, Bogle said. In fact, he credits Crystal Bridges with helping his museum raise its own profile.

“Crystal Bridges has had as much influence on our attendance as anything,” Bogle said. “It’s been maybe the greatest thing that could have happened to us.”

The two museums also work in collaboration as community partners.

“Over the past five years, our two organizations have grown together as cultural institutions serving our region,” said Sandy Bridges, deputy director of Crystal Bridges. “We genuinely value and respect MoNAH as a neighbor and community partner and are proud of their success.

“Similar to Crystal Bridges, MoNAH provides meaningful educational experiences for students. We work with them to help maximize school field trips and tourism opportunities, ensuring our collective efforts attract cultural tourism and add to our vibrant community and overall quality of life for students and residents.”

Kalene Griffith, Bentonville’s top tourism official, noted Crystal Bridges and MoNAH are the top two Bentonville suggestions on the travel website TripAdvisor. Bogle is also aware of the website, and closely monitors the reviews given by visitors. He credits the site with also helping to drive more attendance.

“I keep track of what people say about us; we’ve always had a five-star rating,” he said. “And that makes me feel amazing. We don’t do any advertising, so most of our attendance comes from word of mouth.”