Walmart is a ubiquitous piece of our national landscape, yet it started from humble beginnings. The story of America’s largest retailer is chronicled on the small town square of Bentonville at The Walmart Museum, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Saturday, May 16.
Known as the Walmart Visitors Center until 2012, the museum is a multi-room gallery showcasing a collection of images, items, and information of the history of Walmart and the Walton family over the years. Additional features to the museum are The Walton’s 5&10 gift shop and the Spark Café Soda Fountain, giving visitors the experience of stepping back in time.
The museum is located at 105 N. Main St. in the same space of founder Sam Walton’s original 5&10 store. In May of 1990 the locale was opened as The Walmart Visitors Center. Family portraits and Walmart newspaper ads lined the walls around the freestanding display cases designed by Walmart carpenter Gene Lauer. In the lobby there was a large sepia mural depicting a typical ‘50s-era 5&10 with a cut-out figure of Sam Walton placed beside it. The original floor tiles from Walton’s 5&10 were discovered during the renovation and were intact. Rather than remove them, they were left in place as they’re a testament to Sam’s frugality.
The center was renovated and enhanced in May of 2011 with new exhibits and elements like the Spark Cafe. Since the grand re-opening, annual visitor traffic has grown to six times what it was prior to the grand re-opening, and the 5&10 and Spark Café Soda Fountain have become popular locations for both tourists and the local community.
Over the years, however, the term “visitors center” became more widely adopted by state and local tourism offices rather than by corporate museums. With the City of Bentonville’s own visitors center right across the street from Walton’s 5&10, the move to change the museum’s name to “The Walmart Museum” came naturally. The name change made it crystal clear it was museum, clearing up a lot of confusion for out-of-town visitors.
Today, representing a dynamic company means the museum itself must remain dynamic. This is represented in museum’s mission “to engage, educate, and inspire our associates, customers, and suppliers about our heritage.”
As part of that mission and the desire to be a dynamic member of the community, the museum has increased its involvement, through sponsorships, events, and activities. From NWA Lemonade Day to Girls on the Run to family-friendly activities, and drop-in activities it hosts, the museum works to engage, educate, and inspire in many different ways.
Sam Walton said, “That’s one thing we never did much of while we were building Walmart, talk about ourselves or do a whole lot of bragging outside the Walmart family – except when we had to convince some banker or some Wall Street financier that we intended to amount to something someday, that we were worth taking a chance on. “
Walmart did end up amounting to something and though the museum isn’t there to brag, it continues to tell the story of a young couple that took a chance with a different approach to retail with their small 5&10 and grew it into the world’s largest retailer. As Walmart continues to evolve as a company, the museum will evolve alongside it, but always with a focus on the rich heritage of a company that was definitely worth taking a chance on.
Admission is free. The self-guided tour starts in the original 5&10 and ends up in an old-fashioned soda fountain. The Walmart Museum is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m.