On our way back from Eureka Springs, we stopped in Bentonville for lunch and to assess the roads. A heavy snowstorm was passing through Southern Kansas and Missouri, so we decided to spend an hour at the Walmart Museum while the snowplows got to work.
I’ve frequently heard Bentonville referred to as “the town that Walmart built” and there’s definitely some truth to that statement. Sam Walton opened Walton’s 5&10 on May 9, 1950 in the town square of Bentonville. That store would become the flagship of the retail empire known as Walmart today. The original storefront is still there, but instead of the small shop selling candy and household goods, it has been transformed into the gift shop for a museum commemorating Walmart and life of its founder.
Taking advantage of the heating and free admission, Mona and I stepped into the gift shop that, in addition to Walmart memorabilia, continues to sell candy and household goods. An older man was up front in a traditional shopkeeper’s smock enthusiastically talking to everyone who came in about where they were from and how glad he was they had come to visit. He was so nice and so happy, I found myself purchasing some postcards with the change I found in my purse.
Upon entering there is a short film about the camaraderie between Walmart employees and how the corporation supports fellowship among the workers (I did not say, “as long as fellowship isn’t unions” because I’m pretty sure someone would have made me go stand in the cold if I did that.)
The exhibits begin by chronicling the life of Sam Walton, from his early childhood poverty through his military service and marriage to Helen Walton. His first business was operating a successful Benjamin Franklin’s franchise before relocating to Bentonville and opening Walton’s 5&10. The 5&10, also called a five-and-dime, was a common name for a retail store that sold inexpensive household items.
Over the next decade, Sam Walton and his brother continued to open more franchise locations. In 1962, they opened the first Walmart. After another decade, they had 18 Walmart stores in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The museum’s exhibits chronicle the growth of Walmart over the decades, periodically marking pivotal moments of growth such as incorporation and going public on the stock exchange.
Displays document the business models forming the foundation for Walmart’s success and some elements of corporate culture, such as the Walmart Cheer. My favorite was a wall displaying items that had been returned with ridiculous explanations, including a hairdryer that was possessed (as someone who has spent more than five minutes working in retail, I absolutely believe someone did that.)
Much of the museum is devoted to Sam Walton himself. The exhibits emphasize the success of Walmart was due entirely to the founder’s vision and hard work. One exhibit is Sam’s Office, an office encased in glass that shows where Sam Walton would have spent countless hours growing his enterprise. Artifacts such as the aged stacks of paper covering the desk, chairs, and floor show a man who was busy and kept his professional concerns close at hand.
There is an element of mythmaking in the displays about Sam Walton. He is not just a man who created a successful business enterprise. He is the American Dream. He is the archetypal man who rose from childhood poverty to wealth through hard work and an upward tug on his bootstraps.
At times the museum strayed from a strict recounting of facts and veered towards self-promotion. But that’s to be expected. The museum is Walmart’s tribute to itself. The exhibits speak about the success of the Every Day Low Price business model, but do not mention concerns about predatory pricing. The exhibits frequently reference Walmart’s appreciation of its associates, but do not mention controversies about employee benefits and health care. I’ll admit the cynic in my head was shouting at almost every exhibit I visited, offering up other truths to the propaganda on the display captions.
Fortunately, my inner cynic could be temporarily bribed. The museum exits into a traditional soda shop where we ordered cups of hot chocolate to sip while we checked our phones again to see if the roads had improved. While we sat, a number of families came through the shop for sundaes and ice cream. Prices were, in the Walmart business model fashion, very low. Our medium hot chocolates were only 99 cents and a ice cream cone could be purchased for as little as 10 cents. It was definitely a popular place for local parents to bring their kids on a day off from school. Even when it was snowing outside, the kids were excited for a cold treat.
Once we had the all clear, we were back in the car. We continued driving home and I thought about our trip to the museum. Mostly, I felt conflicted. I’d learned a lot of great things but they seemed to be pressing against the less than great things already in my mind. That is pretty much the case any time I go to a historical museum. Exhibits can never give the full story, only the side that the curators think is the most important to present. As visitors, we’re challenged to take what we are told and create the context for ourselves from other sources. It’s not easy, but at least this museum had hot chocolate at the end.