Swannee Bennett retires as director of Historic Arkansas Museum

Historic Arkansas Museum - Friday, July 31, 2020

Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, announced today that Swannee Bennett, director and chief curator of Historic Arkansas Museum (HAM), is stepping down from his positions with the museum, retiring after 38 years of service. She has appointed Donna Uptigrove to serve as interim director.

“Swannee Bennett's expertise and passion for preserving Arkansas's creative legacy is unmatched,” said Hurst. “Swannee did not want a lot of fanfare regarding his retirement, but we want to recognize the instrumental role he has played in creating a world-class institution for Arkansas that is a shining example of what historic sites and history and decorative arts museums should be.”

Bennett began working at HAM in 1982 and has served as director, deputy director and chief curator. After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Swannee interned at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, furthering his understanding in material culture studies. Bennett began his career in historic site museums at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va. During his visits home to Arkansas, he and Bill Worthen, former HAM director, started the Arkansas Made project, scouring Arkansas for hidden treasures that showcased the history and creative legacy of Arkansas through the lens of family heirlooms.

Over the next several decades, Bennett was a leader in the identification, preservation and promotion of the rich material culture present in Arkansas. In 1990 and 1991, Bennett and Worthen published “Arkansas Made: A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical and Fine Art Produced in Arkansas: 1819-1870,” a two volume work that was the first ever in-depth scholarly undertaking on Arkansas’s fine, decorative and mechanical art and artisans. HAM’s collection now boasts over 100,000 pieces of mechanical, decorative and fine art from the frontier period to modern day. The stories of our history are told through the objects that remain.

Since 1982, Bennett and the Arkansas Made team have identified over 5,000 Arkansas artists and artisans working in the state. The impact of his scholarship in the field of history, research and preservation in Arkansas is unmatched. His career culminates in the significant publication (fall 2020) of the second and expanded edition of “Arkansas Made Vol. I and II, A Survey of the Decorative, Mechanical and Fine Arts Produced in Arkansas through 1950.”

Bennett served as a highly skilled curator for the museum’s collection and exhibits, overseeing numerous culturally significant exhibitions. In addition to the multitude of Arkansas Made exhibitions, his most notable exhibits include:

  • “We Walk in Two Worlds: The Caddo, Osage & Quapaw in Arkansas” – A permanent exhibition that explores the history of Arkansas’s first people, the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw, told in the voice and from the perspective of the tribes themselves.
  • “The Great Arkansas Quilt Show” – An exhibition of contemporary Arkansas quilts that was hosted three times at the museum.
  • “Eclectic Collectors Series” – A series of exhibits over 11 years that featured the curious collections of unique Arkansans.
  • “A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America” – The world’s largest exhibition of Bowie knives, which featured over 200 iconic blades and an accompanying exhibit catalogue of over 400 pages.
  • “Reel to Real” – An exhibit that featured items from the Shaw-Tumblin “Gone with the Wind” collection, which compared props from the famous 1939 film with authentic objects and accounts of the Civil War in Arkansas.
  • “The Wreck of Henrietta Marie: The Slave Ship Speaks”– This moving exhibition showcased hundreds of artifacts recovered from the wreck of a British slave ship that sank off the coast of Key West in 1700.
  • “Robes of Splendor” – One of Bennett’s curatorial triumphs; for a few months in 1995, visitors were allowed to view two sacred hand-painted animal hide robes, the Three Villages Robe & Buffalo Dancers Robe, gifts from the Quapaw tribe to the French government hundreds of years ago. The exhibit was the first time the robes had been back to Arkansas since the 18th century.
  • “The Likeness Trade: Arkansas Portrait Painters” – A celebration of early Arkansas portraits and the artists who painted them.
  • “The Arkansas Masters” – An exhibit that brought together practicing professional Arkansas artists in the inaugural Trinity Gallery exhibit.

“There are many people that have made significant contributions to the field of Arkansas history, but very few have done as much in preserving and making Arkansas history available to the public, as Swannee Bennett,” said Jimmy Bryant, director of the Division or Arkansas Heritage. “Swannee is a true giant in his chosen profession and will long be remembered for his work at Historic Arkansas Museum.”