New exhibits are on display at the newly-reopened Fordyce Bath House Visitor Center, replacing the original exhibits that were installed when the National Park Service reopened the facility in 1989.
The National Park Service closed the facility on Jan. 17 for the remodel. While the hope was to reopen the facility in mid-to-late February, the installation was delayed due to having to reprint some of the display panels.
"Having never taken on a project like this, it was our best guesstimation of what a best-case scenario timeline looked like," Ashley Waymouth, interpretation program manager for Hot Springs National Park, said. "But of course, we got up to that six-week mark, and we realized that there were still a few more tweaks we wanted to do to the exhibits. We just wanted to reprint some panels that we didn't think looked quite right, and so it was really us just taking a little bit more time to put those final deliberate touches to make sure that everything really looked top-notch in the exhibits before we welcomed people back."
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Waymouth said the original exhibits "were top of the line for 1989," but when the process to replace the exhibits started 10 years ago, the Park Service "wanted to tell more of the park's story."
"We wanted people to understand the geology about what made Hot Springs such a unique phenomenon, and we wanted to explain our water distribution system and really emphasize the story of health and healing that took place here," she said. "Being set aside in 1832 and being a premier medical destination for people often gets overlooked when we think about Hot Springs, I think, so we wanted to make sure that that was at the forefront of the story and the narrative we were telling.
"And we realized that we have like a lot of children that come in. We have a lot of people that do better just interacting with exhibits and displays, and so we wanted to make sure that that was a major component of the design, as well."
The new exhibits tell the story of the park in a quite different way, Waymouth said.
"From my point of view, the biggest change from the old exhibits to these is really the information and the way that that information is conveyed," she said. "Nowhere really in our old exhibits could you find any information about the geology of Hot Springs, and our geology is the whole reason that our hot springs even exist. So I feel like that is just such a huge aspect that was missing before that we really get to emphasize now."
Many of the new exhibits feature items that can be touched and manipulated, including pieces of novaculite and sandstone with notes for visitors to "please touch." Other exhibits show artifacts from when the bath houses were open, treatments for common ailments hidden behind doors of old lockers, and how the water is collected and made available for drinking or bathing.
The funding for the project came primarily from fees collected from the use of the campground, Hot Springs National Park Superintendent Laura Miller said.
"This is what it goes toward, things like this," she said. "And we were able to put that money towards designing and lighting the new exhibits. ... Then we had to wait for the funding to actually build it and install it, but that came a couple of years ago, and we started working on that project. So it's been a long time coming. We're very excited about it."
Miller said there are additional projects in the works as well, including new "wayside exhibits" to replace the current ones along Bathhouse Row and new exhibits at the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.
"We get to redesign those and update them, hopefully with like some bronze tactile stuff that people can actually touch and see the architectural elements on some of the buildings," Miller said. "And then we're also going to do new exhibits at the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, where we can tell another part of the story that we don't really even touch on here. There you're looking out over the landscape, and we can sort of tell that tale of the story, more of the Native American story in this area and other aspects that we don't even get into."
The park also has plans to produce a new "interpretive film" to replace the 20-minute film that was completed over 30 years ago. Miller said that will be filmed in the "next couple of years."
The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.