By Tom Pantera, Published November 26 2004
Revealing the Corps: Library of Congress Exhibit provides insight into Lewis and Clark trip
There are maps the explorers carried and botanical samples collected by Meriwether Lewis.
But the Library of Congress exhibition, "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America," also strives to put the Corps of Discovery in context. It begins with materials that predate Lewis and Clark's journey and ends with the coming of the railroad more than 50 years later.
The exhibit dovetails with other activities that have made North Dakota, where the explorers spent the longest period of time, an important focus of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial observance. "Circle of Cultures," the October signature event in Bismarck, attracted an estimated 50,000 people. A second signature event - North Dakota is the only state on the explorers' trail to have two - is scheduled for 2006.
The Library of Congress exhibition opened at the Grand Forks museum Nov. 14 and will run until Jan. 9. Grand Forks is one of three cities along the Lewis and Clark trail to which the library sent the artifacts; they have been in Omaha, Neb., and will go to Seattle after leaving North Dakota.
The exhibit came to Grand Forks because of a conversation in, of all places, St. Petersburg, Russia, museum director Laurel Reuter says.
"It came here by accident, or fortuitously," she says.
An old friend of Reuter's, Irene Chambers, director of interpretive programs at the Library of Congress, was at Russia's Hermitage Museum about a year ago and met another American, Maureen Robinson, who had worked as a financial consultant for the North Dakota Museum of Art. The women discovered they both knew Reuter.
"Irene said, 'I wonder if Laurel would take our exhibition?' " Reuter says. "She called and I said yes and that was the easiest part of it."
While the museum primarily shows art, part of its mission is to present occasional historical and humanities exhibitions, she says. The Lewis and Clark show also fits in with its efforts to reach rural schools, which have sent numerous tour groups to Grand Forks since the opening.
The exhibition required modifications to the exhibit space. Reuter says she hasn't seen final cost figures on those.
The large, airy rooms normally used for displaying artwork have been sectioned off, creating two smaller rooms measuring about 1,600 square feet. Those areas are temperature- and humidity-controlled, kept at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity. They also feature motion-activated lighting on some sensitive documents; the lights don't go on until a viewer is standing directly in front of the document so it won't be damaged by constant illumination.
In fact, some of the documents are so fragile that in the case of those having more than one page, pages are frequently switched out to prevent overexposure, Reuter says.
Not usually displayed
In a phone interview from Washington, D.C., Chambers says the documents aren't usually on public display. She says they are usually kept in special Library of Congress vaults.
Among the earliest items in the exhibition are Spanish maps from the late 1700s showing the area that would later be traveled by Lewis and Clark.
Matt Wallace, the museum's associate director of education, says they are manuscript maps, meaning they never were published; Spanish officials kept them secret so territorial rivals like the British would know as little as possible about unexplored parts of the continent.
Chambers says that map - actually two panels from a larger, four-panel map - is the only manuscript of its kind that exists.
In the portion devoted to the expedition itself are maps the explorers carried with them, as well as maps drawn by William Clark during the journey.
While some of Clark's maps are highly accurate, Reuter notes that other mapmakers' works "continue myths long after they've known better." Some early maps depict the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, a primary but nonexistent goal of the expedition. Other maps show the Rockies as a single stretch of mountains, like the Alleghenies in the east, rather than the huge group of peaks the explorers found.
There are other written materials as well. President Thomas Jefferson's original written instructions to the explorers, penned in his own hand, are on display. Chambers says Lewis and Clark historian James Ronda has identified that item as "the most important document related to American exploration."
Among the artifacts in the show is a peace medal carried by the explorers as gifts to Indian chiefs. And there are those plant specimens, so well-preserved by Lewis that they could have come out of the ground yesterday.
The third part of the exhibition includes maps and artifacts from explorers who followed Lewis and Clark and built on their work. There are beautifully illustrated books depicting birds and insects of the west and a copy of a Washington Irving novel based on a story he bought from an English trader.
Because the railroad eventually served the same function as the legendary Northwest Passage - carrying people westward to the sea - the final item in the exhibition is a huge photograph of a train mired in Red River floodwaters.
Reuter says the exhibition shows that in a sense, Lewis and Clark's journey was its own reward.
"It was more about experience than knowledge," she says.
For Chambers, "the importance of the exhibit is, in a sense, tied to the title. I think it's very hard to understand either individuals or events that have become mythologized and I think Lewis and Clark have been. This exhibit allows you to see both how important they are - and how complex their journey was."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541
If you go
What: "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America"
When: Through Jan. 9
Where: North Dakota Museum of Art on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks
Admission: Free, but a $5 donation is requested from adults and children are asked to bring spare change
Information: (701) 777-4195