Johnson brings more than 20 years of experience in museum operations to the job, and has been in the newly-created Putnam position (vice president of museum experiences) since July 2021.
Before then, he spent five years as executive director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y., a transportation museum that focuses on the American aviation pioneer for which it’s named. Johnson oversaw annual growth in revenue and visitors during his tenure, the Marshals Museum said in a news release.
“In conducting a national search, we were looking for a new CEO with a proven track record of achievement in museum operations,” Doug Babb, Marshals Museum board chair, said. “And that is exactly what we are getting with Ben Johnson … He understands every aspect of museum operations because he has performed nearly every position.”
In his new role, Johnson will oversee the fabrication and installation of museum displays as it moves toward an opening date next year. Babb said he expects Johnson to accelerate fundraising as well.
“I am both excited and humbled to lead the organization honoring the brave men and women who have served our nation since 1789,” Johnson said in the release. “As sacred ground, Fort Smith is the ideal location for this world-class museum, and I look forward to sharing it with the world.”
Johnson succeeds Patrick Weeks, who resigned in March after being charged with assault. Weeks is accused of pointing a gun at two construction workers who were trying to repair a street light on his property.
The case against Weeks is still open. He had led the museum since 2016, overseeing construction of the 50,000-square-foot building and shaping a visitor experience focused on storytelling and historical impact.
In the works since 2007
In 2007, former U.S. Marshals Service Director John Clark announced the decision that Fort Smith would be the home of the U.S. Marshals Museum.
Fort Smith is considered sacred ground for the Marshals Service, as more Marshals and deputy Marshals died riding out of Fort Smith during the frontier era than in any other place or time in our nation’s history, according to the museum. Fort Smith (on the western edge of the state) was awarded the museum project after a highly-competitive selection process that had spanned several years.
While the U.S. Marshals Museum honors a federal law enforcement agency, the museum is not federally funded. Requiring an investment of more than $50 million, this project is being financed almost entirely by the generosity of foundations, businesses, and individuals and supported in-part by local and state government entities.
The Mary Carleton and Robert A. Young III Building and the Samuel M. Sicard Hall of Honor were dedicated on Sept. 24, 2019, marking the 230th anniversary of the creation of the United States Marshals Service.
Staff officially moved into the new building in January 2020. The artifact collection was moved into Curation the following month. Beginning in March 2020, the Museum staff practiced social distancing protocols and worked the majority of their time from home, due to the COVID pandemic. Programming continued via online camp experiences and virtual Constitution Week activities, and weekly Facebook Live presentations.
In June 2021, the Museum Foundation received a $5-million anonymous matching gift. The USMMF continues fundraising efforts to complete the Capital Campaign. Having sufficient cash and pledges, the museum signed a contract with Thinkwell Group in November 2021. Thinkwell Group is a global design and production company who will bring the Museum Experience to life. Due to supply and labor shortages, the museum is unable to set an opening date at this time.
“We’re going to kind of hold off on providing any firm dates until the fundraising gets finished up and also, making sure that we don’t have any hiccups with construction and installation of the exhibit experience,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview with Local 4.
“To raise $45 million is nothing to sneeze at. So they’ve been doing a fantastic job with the fundraising so far and I’m hoping that I can kind of get up to speed quicker than I imagine, so that we can keep up the momentum,” he said.
The Marshals Service has a federal budget of $3.8 billion, and a staff of 5,507, including 3,976 federal agents. But its budget does not support the museum.
“Catching bad guys is kind of a priority and I’m a hundred percent on board with that,” Johnson said. “The museum is an economic driver both for the state of Arkansas and the whole Arkansas River Valley. We’ve been able to, through individuals, foundations, corporate partners, we’ve really done well.”
The museum is run by an independent, nonprofit board, and they raised money for building construction and exhibits. They’re in the process of installing everything, Johnson said.
“There is some fundraising left to do for finishing the building off, with all fixtures and equipment,” he said, noting it will include a museum cafe and store. They need to raise about $5 million more, including some operating revenue.
“There’s only about seven staff members, but we’re going to get up to 20, 25 pretty quick, once we start moving towards actually being open,” Johnson said.
What are U.S. Marshals?
A national museum is really needed since most people don’t know what U.S. Marshals do.
“I have learned more in the last three weeks than I knew in the previous 40-plus years,” Johnson said. The Marshals Service is the oldest federal law enforcement agency, in existence since 1789.
“When you create a new government and have witnesses come in and give testimony within a new court system and judges are being killed or witnesses are being killed or harassed, the Marshals Service original intention was to provide safety and security for all aspects of the American judicial system.
“That has changed a ton over the last 230 years,” he said, noting more Marshals have been killed serving out of the Western District of Arkansas, which is why it’s so important where the museum is located.
“What they do now, they’re all over the place. They do courthouse security, protecting federal judges, they run the witness protection program,” Johnson said. “They’re most well-known for the best kind of fugitive tracking.”
“They have a really kind of interesting, varied history and they played a prominent role in the civil rights era,” he said. “It’s interesting. It’s a cool subject matter and definitely worth a world-class museum.”
U.S. Marshals played a key role in desegregating schools in the South, including protecting Black students in Little Rock, and James Meredith attending the University of Mississippi, Johnson said.
According to the Service website, its mission is to support “virtually all elements of the federal justice system by providing for the security of federal court facilities and the safety of judges and other court personnel; apprehending criminals; exercising custody of federal prisoners and providing for their security and transportation to correctional facilities; executing federal court orders; seizing assets gained by illegal means and providing for the custody, management, and disposal of forfeited assets; assuring the safety of endangered government witnesses and their families; and collecting and disbursing funds.”
The job came to him
He was recruited for the CEO job by a headhunter and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“Every job has its own unique pluses and minuses and this one, I really am looking forward to the opportunity of being in the big chair again,” Johnson said. “I was blown away, seeing the facility up close; walking through it, talking to the board. It really is going to be a unique and exciting place that’s going to be even more cool than people realize.”
Fort Smith is 84 miles south of Bentonville, the home of Wal-Mart and the famous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The first person to occupy his Putnam job, Johnson said of the Davenport museum: “The people are just outstanding.
“The team, the last two-and-a-half years for every nonprofit — even for-profit — have been incredibly difficult,” he said. “The staff here has done a great job of keeping an eye on the future and continue growing partnerships just across the city to make sure that the Putnam stays active and relevant as a cultural and historical institution. For me, leaving the people is always the worst part of any move.”
“It was post-pandemic and a new position and a lot of new staff and trying to figure stuff out and we’ve done a great job and made a ton of progress so far,” Johnson said of the Putnam.
According to the Putnam job description, his current job aims to connect with audiences through gallery experiences, exhibit design, and education offerings, and virtual and print materials.
The successful candidate to succeed Johnson brings 10-plus years’ experience in an equivalent position, with background in exhibit content, education, and special events as well as being skilled in project management, multitasking, detail orientation, and complex problem-solving.
“The right person has high drive, creativity, and flexibility when working in a fast-paced environment while balancing humor, compassion, and motivation in their leadership of staff,” the description says. Interested candidates must apply by Aug. 20.