Most armchair historians know that American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark weren't the first folks to roam the American West. Their famous Shoshone Indian guide, Sacagawea, contributed immeasurably to the expedition's accomplishments with her knowledge of the territory, interpretation and survival skills. Still, their journey did make life as we now know it here in the West possible, and it also changed the destiny of Native Americans forever.
As part of the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark's 8,000-mile journey in search of a non-existent Northwest Passage, the traveling Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition, put together by the Missouri Historical Society, will stop along its trail for a stay at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, beginning Friday, May 6. Because the DMNS is one of only five U.S. venues slated to host the blockbuster, this show is not only a coup for the museum, but an educational treasure as well, notes DMNS spokeswoman Laura Holtman. "It's just such a great opportunity for people all over the region to come and experience these artifacts," she says. "A lot of them are owned by private entities, so to get to see them all together in one place at one time is a huge windfall, and not likely to happen again soon."
The show pays a lot of attention to the role Native Americans played in Lewis and Clark's success, offering a relatively new historical angle. "It tries to be even-handed in telling the story, by taking into consideration the Native American perspective and what the expedition meant for their way of life," Holtman says. But it's a viewpoint that plays well at the DMNS, which is known for its spectacular Crane North American Indian Hall -- a valuable side trip alongside the major exhibit. In addition, the museum will feature companion displays from its own collection, including peace medals, coin-like presidential medals presented to tribes during negotiations and Many Nations, Many Voices, a look at various tribes encountered by Lewis and Clark.
The traveling exhibit includes a wide range of Native American artifacts, from ceremonial clothing and trade beads to medicine kits and weapons. It is also a trove of priceless rarities: plant specimens preserved along the expedition route, Lewis's telescope, a sketch of a magpie he drew for Thomas Jefferson, a fine map drawn by skilled cartographer Clark after the trip ended, and the handwritten journals of both explorers, among other things. In all, more than 600 objects will be displayed in the multi-faceted exhibit.
The Phipps IMAX Theater will provide further embellishment by bringing back the big-screen adventure Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, scheduled for several showings daily throughout the run of the show. And curator Carol Gilman of the Missouri Historical Society offers a behind-the-scenes look at how she pulled Lewis & Clark together over a period of seven years in her illustrated lecture on Thursday, May 5, in Ricketson Auditorium. It's a story almost as engaging as that of the expedition itself.
This is a show of great magnitude, exploring what's perhaps our nation's most essential historical tale. And even 200 years later, it's a particularly memorable experience. "This is a story in history that everyone studies in school, but to actually find yourself in the presence of the original documents makes an impression on you," Holtman enthuses. "It truly makes that history come alive."