Meriwether Lewis and William Clark might recognize the open ranges and majestic gorges even 200 years after their exploration of the American West.
The power plants, county fairs and strip malls have changed the landscape a bit, though. Photographer Greg MacGregor captures the similarities and glaring differences of the past 200 years in the photo exhibit “Lewis and Clark Revisited: A Trail in Modern Day,” open through February at the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.
Mr. MacGregor spent seven years tracing the path of Lewis and Clark — who, by the way, only took two years to chart the unexplored territory from St. Louis to the Oregon coast.
The black-and-white photos show a remarkable juxtaposition between modern America and the unspoiled landscape of the 1800s. Some areas — such as the spot on the Salmon River in Idaho where the explorers realized the water could not be followed — remain unchanged. Others, such as the site of the Trojan nuclear power plant in Washington state or of the “Eat at Al’s” restaurant sign in South Dakota, demonstrate how drastically the American landscape has changed.
The Department of the Interior headquarters at 1849 C St. NW houses one of the District’s quieter museums. A first-floor suite is devoted to the history and works of the government agency. However, because the agency deals with national parks and natural resources, the beauty of both is captured in art and artifacts that older school age children and above might enjoy.
“The Department of Interior is so much a part of how this country was settled and how it uses its natural resources,” says Anne James Harman, the museum’s curator of education.
The museum has been open since 1938 but has adapted its collection to change with the public’s attention span. The collection started out as dioramas of parks and moments in history. Some of those displays — along with metal silhouettes of park visitors and wildlife — remain, giving the museum a campy feel. Otherwise, displays have become much more multimedia-oriented.
One room houses an exhibit titled “The Power of Context: National Park Service Museums at 100.” This exhibit offers “quick visits” to several parks and historic sites through photos, writing and a few key artifacts.
In it, visitors can see photos of the Grand Canyon, for instance, along with ancient split-twig figurines that early American Indians in the area used. Nearby are displays on subjects as diverse as Harry Truman, the Florida Everglades and a 225-million-year-old phytosaur from Arizona’s Petrified Forest.
The museum will appeal to students interested in scientific pursuits such as geology, archaeology and zoology. There is a huge collection of rocks and minerals as well as examples of relics found at Interior sites as dams were constructed. There are exhibits about endangered species, biologist and science writer Rachel Carson (who began her career as an Interior employee), mapmaking and surveying.
The museum also houses a second photo exhibit capturing America through photographers’ lenses. That display, “America’s Beautiful National Parks: Contemporary and Historical Photography,” runs through February.
Contemporary photos are displayed alongside classic ones, such as the stark landscapes taken by Ansel Adams generations ago.
Ms. Harman points out the contrast between some of the modern photos and some of the classics. A recent picture from the Oconaluftee River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, shows the rush of water flowing over everything in its path. That is quite a contrast with Mr. Adams’ landscapes, where there was never any motion, she says.
The museum is an excellent place to see how natural beauty is used in art. It contains many murals created by American Indian artists and also has an extensive Indian Craft Shop. The shop offers a huge collection of jewelry, crafts, books and other items. Each month, an artist or medium is highlighted. December’s feature is American Indian jewelry, and guest artist Thomas Jim, a Navajo designer, will be in residence Dec. 15 through 17.
When you go:
Location: The U.S. Department of the Interior Museum is located at 1849 C St. NW in the District, just off Constitution Avenue near the Ellipse.
Hours: Open weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Open from 1 to 4 p.m. the third Saturday of the month. Closed on federal holidays.
Parking: Limited meter and street parking is nearby. The Farragut North stop on Metro’s Red Line is seven blocks away.
More information: 202/208-4743 or www.doi.gov/interiormuseum
The Department of the Interior Museum is devoted to all things related to the department, including natural resources, national parks and American Indian history and culture.
Several temporary displays will run this winter, one retracing Lewis and Clark’s journey in modern times through photography; a collection of photos old and new from the nation’s national parks; and one containing a variety of items from national historic sites.
Guided tours and school group sessions are available on request.
The museum has an extensive Indian Craft Shop.