I was trying to think when the last time a small city had the good fortune of a private citizen building and operating a museum, particularly one of high quality. The numbers you might recall might be counted on one hand. Little Rock is undeniably fortunate to have a benefactor who has done this, taking a lifelong collection, building a gem of a museum around it, and opening to the public. In a repurposed building, along a street recently reenergized with interesting shops and cafes, the Esse Purse Museum currently has a chronologically organized history of American women's fascination with the hand bag during the 20th Century; and also houses a temporary exhibit for the next 60 days, of a similar collection of women's hats. With the purses comes a narrative and accompanying exhibitry which explains America during each decade - our work, recreation, our challenges and our successes, all interpreted through the handbag...and often all the things which spill out of the bag. There are snapshots and handerchiefs and wartime remembrance and much more. The museum appeals therefore not just to those who like style and design but to the historians in each of us. At first I was confused about just whom I should recommend to visit this museum. Women would seem a natural to enjoy Esse, but I soon was reminded that I liked it too... and I realized that guys like me with an interest in our country's history would find it interesting. I believe teen and preteen girls would definitely fall for Esse, but as to younger children and most boys?... I really do not know. I want to say one thing about the design of the exhibitry before I forget...this is no amateur installation. The cases and display design would match decorative arts museums of New York and major European galleries. There is one more draw to the museum. Aside from the very impressive Historic Arkansas Museum gift shop , the Esse shop is easily the best museum shop in town and probably the most interesting jewelry display I've seen in the state. I'm headed there for Christmas shopping. Don't be put off by some $1500 purses for sale, there are plenty of very unusual things there for ordinary budgets...which brings me to the only issue of the museum, admission cost. Unfortunately, the owner, though hugely generous in opening this fine facility for the public's pleasure, does not have the means of Alice Walton, and must charge to keep the museum up and running. There are no city subsidies available, thought here probably should be. The $10 entry fee (discounts for students and seniors and small kids free) can be off-putting to travelers on a budget. However, when you figure a mediocre lunch or a movie can approach that, I can safely say that there is nothing mediocre about this experience. I got my money's worth, but I'd like to see the owner explore various ways to bring more travelers and locals to the museum for less cost. I anticipate creative changing shows here, and cutting edge ideas in the future. This is the kind of place which puts our town on the map and I'm hopeful it receives much support. I'm just wondering if they let bag ladies in free.
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