- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

The quest to build “Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition” took much longer than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 8,000-mile journey to map the American West two centuries ago.

The exhibit, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History through mid-September, is a comprehensive collection of all things Lewis and Clark. Historian Carolyn Gillman and the staff at the Missouri Historical Society spent seven years combing the collections of 50 museums; five American Indian reservations; and dozens of basements, attics and antiques shops to acquire artifacts for the display.

What she found is a priceless collection. Even armchair historians who think they know the whole story about the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson, American Indians or the exploration west of the Mississippi River will come away having learned something.

“This is about the best compilation that could be done 200 years after the fact,” says Herman Viola, a curator emeritus for the Smithsonian and a consultant to the exhibit.

Mr. Viola explains that then-President Jefferson made no real plans for what to do with the artifacts and findings of the Corps of Discovery expedition, so many crucial historical objects were auctioned off soon after the explorers returned in 1805.

“The Smithsonian itself had only one object — a compass — in its collection,” Mr. Viola says. “That gives you an idea of how rare this [collection] is.”

The exhibit breaks down the journey into sections. In the first one, visitors can see how Jefferson viewed the West (as a mirror image of the East) as well as his letters to Congress to convince it that the expedition was necessary. (The journey was as much about commerce as it was exploration.) Among the many documents is Lewis’ handwritten estimate of expenses. The $2,500 tally eventually was exceeded by 1,420 percent when the bill came to be $38,000.

Up next are sections about the journey, with a model of one of the three boats that carried the team. Artifacts include a transfer document from the Louisiana Purchase, hundreds of items representing the American Indians in the area explored, and Clark’s handwritten elk-skin journal.

The exhibit gives an in-depth look at the cultures of the American Indian nations the team met and lived among along the way. Weapons from the confrontation between the Sioux and the explorers are included, as are handmade toys from the Mandans and tools Lakota women used to cook, clean and take care of children.

Most captivating are the maps. It is interesting to see how far off some of Jefferson’s expectations about the West were. It is even more interesting to see how Clark’s maps changed as the expedition continued.

One display explains how American Indians made maps based on what the people did with the land, not the land itself. Clark, who collected about 100 American Indian maps, then drew his own based partly on that research and partly on his own observation. These maps are on the walls of the museum as well as in several books and interactive displays.

Much space also is given to the new varieties of plants and animals the corps encountered. Among Lewis and Clark’s new finds were woodpeckers and prairie dogs. The display features impressions of various animal footprints the men saw, as well as a horn from a bighorn sheep, circa 1805.

Also a highlight of this section is a letter from Lewis to Jefferson from 1805. In it, he predicts that crossing the mountains in the latter part of the journey to the Oregon coast will be “easy and expeditious.”

As history has shown, Lewis was wrong. The next section shows how perilous that leg was. A short movie on a flat screen further tells the story.

The exhibit does a good job of showing the cultural gap between the explorers’ team and the American Indians. There are displays showing the similarities and differences between the cultures and how the corps made many mistakes in dealing with the Indians.

The last part of the exhibit gives some perspective on the long and difficult journey. Results were mixed, it points out. The team did not find a water route across the continent, it did not make peace among the tribes, and its scientific findings were not published for almost a century.

However, it did set the tone for what became a larger and more prosperous United States. A final map shows how far the country has come since then.

The Smithsonian stop is the end of a two-year tour for the collection. Mr. Viola says history buffs may never get the chance to see so many artifacts from the journey in one spot again.

“After this, a lot of the items are going back into people’s closets,” he says.

When you go:

Location: “Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition” is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through Sept. 11. The museum is 10th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest.

Hours: Open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily until Sept. 3, when the museum begins closing at 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited street and meter parking is available. The nearest Metro stop is the Smithsonian stop on the Orange and Blue lines.

More information: 202/663-1000 or www.si.edu.

Notes: The exhibit is a collection of more than 600 artifacts relating to the 1804-05 journey of the explorers to map the American West. It covers all things Lewis and Clark — from personal items to hand-drawn maps to President Thomas Jefferson’s involvement to wildlife and plant discoveries. A large portion is devoted to the culture and items of the American Indian tribes the explorers encountered. It might be too complex and involve too much reading for small children, but school-age and older museum-goers should find the exhibit fascinating.

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