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Supply of Lewis & Clark artifacts stretched thin.

Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

The nation is so awash in Lewis and Clark shows that historian James Ronda, who worked on one that's just opened at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, says he's had to maintain a personal "firewall" between the numerous exhibits he's consulted on commemorating the journey.

That's not to say, of course, that there's anything less than unique about each and every one.

"There are four or five of these exhibitions around the country," he said at opening ceremonies earlier this month. "This one is extraordinary."

Well, naturally.

But the existing supply of Lewis and Clark memorabilia may be getting stretched a little thin as the nation's museums fight over every last artifact that can be realistically, or even imaginatively, linked to the legendary expedition.

So it is perhaps forgivable that publicity for this exhibit seems to overstate the number of items that might actually have been handled, say, by Meriwether Lewis or William Clark, or by any members of the expedition that left St. Louis in 1804, reached the Northwest coast and then returned to what was then civilization in 1806.

``Over 450 rare and priceless Lewis and Clark artifacts,'' gloats one release, ``assembled for the first time in 200 years!''

The truth is more mundane. As you walk through the exhibit, you can count for yourself the number of items - perhaps a few dozen - that bear the red dots that indicate the object was, at least possibly, involved with the actual Lewis and Clark expedition.

For the most part, though, you'll see objects ``of the era,'' such as uniforms of the kind worn by U.S. soldiers and the battle garb worn by Native Americans 200 years ago.

That's probably not surprising. Few people thought, in 1806, that objects from the expedition were necessarily worth keeping around.

"When Lewis and Clark came back, there was no Library of Congress," Ronda said. "There was no national archive. We're lucky this much stuff has survived."

One example of the real thing - something actually from the expedition - is a stuffed Lewis' woodpecker, as we call the bird today, that was "possibly collected by Lewis," the display notes, and wound up in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

That 200-year-old bird, whether touched by the actual hand of Lewis or by one of his minions, was killed here two centuries ago, traveled across the continent, resided in an East Coast museum and then traveled back home again.

Now that is something to write home about.

The exhibit reached Portland this month after opening in St. Louis in 2004 and traveling to Denver and Philadelphia.

The National Bicentennial Exhibition works hard to be educational and to be culturally bland about the collision of cultures that occurred as Americans and natives met. We're constantly asked to see the expedition from the point of view of the natives who already lived here.

In fact, the exhibit opens with two figures: a bronze bust of Thomas Jefferson, the president who ordered the expedition into existence, and an enigmatic stone figure from the Columbia River Indians.

The best part of the exhibit is the maps. When Lewis and Clark started out, they used a published map, an edition of which is in the display, that shows the western half of the American continent basically as a big blank.

Running north to south, you do see a little line of mountains, the Rockies, but they weren't considered any more serious a barrier than the Appalachian Mountains in the East.

That notion, of course, would change by the expedition's end. Another map in the exhibit, published after the journey, shows a continent filled in with robust detail.

That map, Ronda says, shows a moment of revelation for a young nation seeking to expand West.

"The West," he said, "was not a simple place."

EXHIBIT REVIEW

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition

What: Maps, letters and artifacts relating to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-1806.

Where: Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland.

When: Through March 11.

Admission: $15 adults; $13 seniors 60 and older, and students with ID; $10 ages 6 to 18; free for ages 5 and younger, but they must have tickets. All tickets are for a specified entry time; call (503) 306-5214 or check www.ohs.org for available times.

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

CAPTION(S):

Journal entries and drawings by William Clark include this one made on Feb. 25, 1806. Missouri Historical Society Among items in the exhibit are (clockwise from top) William Clark's elkskin-bound journal; an inlaid powder horn that belonged to Clark; a portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles B.J.F. St. Memin; a portrait of Clark attributed to John Wesley Jarvis; and a telescope owned by Lewis. A peace medal is one of the artifacts in the exhibit.
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 27, 2005
Words:821
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