Exhibit traces Lewis, Clark's psychological journey

Monday, January 12, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Seven years ago, the Missouri History Museum embarked on what would be the largest, most ambitious project in its 137-year history.

The challenge: Assemble the largest collection of artifacts, documents and other materials from the Lewis and Clark expedition for an exhibit commemorating the 2004 bicentennial of their journey West.

The exhibition, which opens Wednesday in St. Louis and travels the country through 2006, features 500 rare and priceless objects that were dispersed after the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in 1806.

Among the most important: William Clark's elk skin field journal and rifle, a letter of credit President Thomas Jefferson wrote to Meriwether Lewis in July 1803, and a brass and wood telescope Lewis took on the trip.

The collection is so magnificent -- its maps creased and coffee-stained, Lewis' don't-worry letter to his mother, a woodpecker specimen still intact and colorful -- that Historical Society president Robert Archibald is surprised by the artifacts' durability.

"My God, this is real?" asked Archibald, who heads both the state commission and national council on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

St. Louis was a good bet for undertaking the $7 million project. The city was, after all, where Jefferson's two emissaries spent five months planning and shopping for the trip. Their charge: to explore and document the vast, newly acquired Louisiana Territory, establish trade contacts with the Indians, and traverse to the Pacific through an imagined water route.

Lewis, a reflective, literary man prone to what Jefferson called "melancholia," and Clark, an adept, take-charge commander, left on May 14, 1804, with an expedition of roughly 45 men on three boats just outside St. Louis, where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet.

The party, especially Lewis, would be radically changed by the wilderness immersion and assimilation into Indian culture and thinking.

The exhibit traces Lewis and Clark's physical and psychological journey, and tells the story from both the Indian and Euro-American perspective. The project was guided by a national advisory committee of scholars and American Indians.

Some speculate that Lewis, believed to have fatally shot himself three years after their return, couldn't reconcile the two worlds. Jefferson had sent him as a rational Enlightenment scientist and observer who was to chronicle and explain all he saw for future use and exploitation. But Lewis was learning a new way of being that valued interdependence and reverence for nature, the sacred and the spiritual.

"I think that if I could talk to Lewis today, he'd say, 'I never, ever got over it,'" Archibald said.

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