Walking Through an ‘Epic Tale’

I took a stroll through The Frazier History Museum, which has a new exhibit surrounding the westward expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, simulating the essence of their travels. The exhibit aims at teaching young people the significance of what led to mapping out our country, and how it advanced the settlers’ understanding of plant and animal species.

With information boards in place, along with historical illustrations by local artist Kyle Ware, the displays are all amusingly stylized. As I walked through the area of the museum where the environments were still under construction, with large foam rocks being painted, taxidermied animals being put in place and trees under assembly, I could tell this would be an effective arrangement, ready to spark imaginations. The designers of this show, who were doing a lot of the labor themselves, were nearly ready to paint the river on the floor.

5Props and materials were acquired from local places, such as a south Louisville telephone poll company (for straight logs) and an exporter of fake greenery out in California. The team also made a trip to Camp Dubois in St. Louis for inspiration. Through all the planning, budgeting, and imaginative solutions required, they see the ordeal of creating an exhibit to be humorously analogous to the Lewis and Clark journey.

Brigid Muldoon described this creation like this: “definitely different than anything we’ve done before.” Muldoon has been with the museum for six years and is chief curator.

“It’s very environmental, and there are a lot of things to do and explore,” she said. “A lot of our exhibits in the past have been very much object-based, text-based, and this is a real nice mix of all those things. And there’s a lot of activities for kids to do.”

9Kids are inclined to explore, and that has been taken into important consideration in the design. There are small caves, a fishing pond where you can use a pole to catch magnetized stuffed fish (which they got in a variety of species) and a fort, ready with dress-up clothes and musical instruments for the kids to role-play.

There’s also a place where one is likely to encounter a grizzly bear (this one’s harmless) reflecting the dangers of the West – dangers to which settlers were not accustomed. A “Scat Station” will inspire giggles but teach kids how different animal feces were identified, and how they showed the explorers what beasts were in the area.

A major player in this show is the keelboat, a cargo-carrying boat that was crucial to this expedition because of the need to trade. “The keelboat was designed specifically for this trip,” said Muldoon. “Lewis designed it himself and had it made in Philadelphia.”

She added: “(If) you go on vacation, what do you bring with you? You’re going on a trip across the country where no one’s really explored before and documented it. What do you bring with you? I think it’s a really important part of their journey.”

3Part of their adaptation to the environment was through education from the tribes. For example, they were taught how to burn out a canoe instead of the painstaking task of carving it. Tribal lessons are a major part of this exhibit.

In response to my curiosity about Louisville’s role in this bit of history, Muldoon explained how The Falls of the Ohio is where Clark met up with Lewis. She suggested that the ideas all formed here.

“They came to the Louisville area because they knew it was kind of a booming town where people were looking for jobs,” Muldoon said,  referring to the recruiting of the famous Nine Young Men From Kentucky. “It was a river city, so they could stop by on the way in. It was (the) frontier of the time. The people living here had trapping skills, tracking skills – the type of survival skills that they would need further along the journey. Louisville was the place (where) they stopped and picked up their skilled labor that would help them make the voyage.”

Mick Sullivan is part of the educational department for the museum, and is guest curator for this exhibit. He wrote most of the text for the timeline information. He says the big challenge is “figuring out how to tell the story, because it’s such an epic tale.”

Dealing specifically with kids in 1st-6th grades has taught Sullivan how to boil down complex lessons into simple terms for young people. “We wanted to build an environment that would spark the imagination of that age group,” says Sullivan. “There’s a lot of stuff for adults too.” VT

The Lewis and Clark Experience has completed construction and is now open for museum visitors. For hours and information, visit www.fraziermuseum.org.