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 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's 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,' " said Archibald, who noted that the night before Lewis died, he declined his host's offer of a bed and instead slept on the floor with buffalo robes.
Clark initially fared better after the expedition, serving first as territorial governor, then as a federal Indian agent in St. Louis, where he's buried. But he would ultimately become disheartened by his country's broken promises to the Indians.
Exhibit curator Carolyn Gilman said the expedition started out "arrogant and imperialistic." Lewis and Clark's standard speech to Indians they encountered told of the Great White Father Jefferson and included handouts of "peace medals" (also in the exhibit) engraved with Jefferson's image.
But by the time the expedition reached the Shoshone, who gave them horses to cross the treacherous Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, members were dependent on Indians, eating their food, wearing their dress, imbibing their medicines, Gilman said. Lewis was even worried that his men were in danger of assimilating too much into Indian society.
Lewis and the Shoshone chief, who, by an astounding coincidence, Sacagawea - Lewis and Clark's American Indian guide who acted as interpreter on their venture - recognizes as her long-lost brother, trade clothes, a symbol of prestige. Shoshone Chief Cameahwait wears Lewis' cocked hat. In turn, he places on Lewis an elaborate mantle of 140 ermine skins, and perhaps, some of his identity. An engraving of Lewis in Shoshone dress is part of the exhibit.
"Lewis could have said 'It's beautiful, it's comfortable or warm,"' Archibald said. "But he says in his journal, 'I was metamorphosed.' I think for a moment, or much more, he understood the world as an Indian. Lewis never made the (psychological) transition back."
Gilman, author of "Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide," a companion volume to the exhibit, spent seven years in what she describes as "one big scavenger hunt." She tracked down hundreds of artifacts from descendants and depositories, and authenticated them, applying a rigorous standard.
"It's not enough that an item is alleged to be a Lewis and Clark artifact and from the same period," Gilman said. "It needed a chain of provenance (a history of ownership) every step of the way."
When the expedition ended in 1806, there was no national depository for artifacts, Gilman said. So the plant and animal specimens, maps, journals, jewelry and documents were scattered. Jefferson, Lewis and Clark took some things. Equipment was sold to pay bills from the expedition.
The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia ended up with some manuscripts and journals. The Peale Museum, also in Philadelphia, received some plant and animal specimens, but in 1848, the Peale went bankrupt and the collection dispersed. Some of the artifacts went to P.T. Barnum's museum, which burned in 1865. Clark's personal collection was on exhibit in a building next to his St. Louis home. But that collection eventually dispersed, Gilman said.
She eventually found objects in more than 50 museums and in private hands.
One of the most fascinating finds is an intact woodpecker that Lewis killed in 1806 and sent to Jefferson as an example of a rare and new creature. It's the only whole-animal specimen that remains from the expedition.
The exhibit is ambitious in what it aims to accomplish, helping viewers see the nuances and humanity of Lewis and Clark's journey, and explore the physical and emotional landscapes with them.
Throughout the exhibit, Indian and European-American interpretations of the journey are juxtaposed.
For the European-Americans, power was in accumulating wealth and exploiting resources. For the Indians, status was found in how much they could give away.
Expedition members sought answers by chronicling and organizing their new environment. Indians contemplated the mystery.
The Indians showed how to temper an embrace of science. But when Lewis and Clark emerged from the wilderness, they had to shed such notions: Archibald said Jefferson wouldn't have accepted them.
Archibald calls it a missed opportunity, and hopes visitors won't miss it.
"We have lived our vision of the world. Lewis and Clark carried it into the wilderness. We have to ask, will technology dig us out of every problem we encounter? Something in our very heart must change," Archibald said.
The traveling schedule of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial exhibition
ST. LOUIS -- The Lewis and Clark bicentennial exhibit will open Wednesday at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis and will be on view through Sept. 6, 2004.
It will feature hundreds of objects, documents, plant and animal specimens and other artifacts that haven't been seen in one place since the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis in 1806.
The exhibit, although not in its entirety, will travel to:
-The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Nov. 6, 2004-March 21, 2005
-The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, May 6-Aug. 21, 2005
-The (Portland) Oregon Historical Society, Nov. 11, 2005-March 11, 2006
-The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, May 12-Sept. 11, 2006.
On the Net:
Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition: http://www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org
Missouri Historical Society: http://www.mohistory.org