The U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas traces the rich and complex history of the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.
From the days of the Wild West, to facing violent riots in the 1960s, to capturing high-profile criminals like El Chapo in the modern era, the goal was to make history alive and engaging for guests. Authentic placemaking, participatory interactive technologies, dynamic showmanship, and even humor were all essential ingredients. But the story had to be unflinching in the face of sometimes difficult subject matter. A core philosophy of the museum is that the history of the U.S. Marshals also represents the history of the nation, which is a story of striving—and sometimes failing—to live up to the glorious promise of the U.S. Constitution.
Thus, the journey begins with the constitution itself, its words etched across the pillars and pediment of justice housing the first exhibit, and continues into a room-scale timeline to show the full scope and duties of the U.S. Marshals Service across American history.
The timeline leads to the central gathering space: the Campfire. Four deputies, one from each century the marshals have served, sit around a campfire in a rocky glade under a starry night sky. Guests are invited to sit with the deputies (rendered as fully detailed life figures), where they swap stories which come to life as smoke and shadows cast by the campfire on the cliff face behind. All exhibit areas connect through this central campfire space.
Heading toward Frontier Marshals, guests encounter the First Lawmen, a tactile bound book detailing the lives of the first group of U.S. Marshals appointed by President George Washington. Overhead projection registered to each page helps bring the antique picture book illustrations to life. Even their portraits subtly animate, using AI-enabled motion-capture technology to present a glimpse of each man’s personality and humanity.
The Goingsnake Theater offers an emotional media presentation on a tintype-looking canvas, exploring the complex relationship between the federal government and different Cherokee factions that eventually led to the deadliest shootout in U.S. Marshal history on April 15, 1872. Thinkwell worked with members of the Cherokee Nation, during which time historians’ understanding of the jurisdictional conflicts surrounding the tragedy even changed as a result of this production.
Frontier Marshals also includes an old western street featuring a marshal’s office and a saloon. Inside the saloon, visitors can sidle up to the poker table where a digitally mapped interactive card game challenges them to identify icons of the old west. Behind the antique bar, the bartender regales patrons with daring stories of frontier lawmen, using a transparent scrim to create a holographic effect with multi-layered media inspired by old “magic lantern” shows popular in the era.
The twentieth century comes into view in A Changing Nation, where the U.S. Marshals enforced school desegregation and faced riots and extremist movements. In the Marshals Challenge decision theater, three scenarios present a series of questions to test how guests would respond to some of these complex situations.
Finally, the Modern Marshals gallery details the tools and techniques today’s U.S. Marshals use in the pursuit of justice. A highlight is a recreation of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that features a fugitive chase simulation modeled after real virtual training programs used by the Marshals. Motion tracking requires guests to physically run in place to capture a fleeing fugitive, while also keeping a clear eye for details that could be relevant to the case.
To bring this level of depth and immersion to a market the size of Fort Smith was an uncommon achievement. The U.S. Marshals Museum establishes a high standard of design for Arkansas and the nation, and will serve as a landmark for the people of Fort Smith for decades to come.
To Carry a Badge
‘To Carry A Badge’ is an electrifying, immersive, solo adventure where guests of the United States Marshals Museum step into the shoes of a deputy U.S. Marshal, undergoing physical and observational training just like the real heroes of the badge.
In this dynamic simulation, participants find themselves in hot pursuit of a fugitive, testing their endurance, honing their observation skills, making critical decisions, and facing challenging questions. Their every move and judgment call is tested, culminating in a personalized performance assessment.
To ensure no two experiences are alike, there is an element of randomness injected into the mix. Sound effects, voiceovers, and particular in-game objects are randomized, ensuring that every journey through ‘To Carry A Badge’ delivers a fresh and unpredictable adventure.
The team aimed to create an engaging, cutting-edge interactive experience using a thrilling blend of technology. Engaging through a 65-inch portrait-hung touchscreen, the guest’s selection ensures an experience that is both accessible and exhilarating.
The primary goal was to make this interactive exhibit and experience accessible to everyone. To achieve this, the team utilized several inclusive design strategies:
1 – Ensuring that any audio content was accompanied by closed captions, making it accessible to individuals with hearing impairments.
2 – To maintain an immersive experience for all guests, the interaction is designed from a first-person perspective. It starts by prompting the guest to touch the screen at eye level, aligning the ‘lifesize’ visual with the guest’s point of reference. This ensures that individuals of all ages and abilities, including children, adults, and wheelchair users, can participate seamlessly.
3 – There are two engagement options: running in place using foot motion detection + tracking or button mashing with a push-button interface. This dual approach accommodates varying physical abilities and preferences, making the experience enjoyable for all!
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