Lewis and Clark Merchandise Exhibit
A few years ago when I first became interested in the Lewis and Clark bicentennial as a cultural phenomenon, I gave an anthropology conference presentation called, "Lewis and Clark and the Marketing Department: Cashing In on the Corps of Discovery." It was already clear a few years before the bicentennial began that it would be big business.
The Ilwaco (Washington) Heritage Museum recently unveiled a new exhibit titled, “Don’t Bother Me With the Facts: Uses and Abuses of the Lewis and Clark Theme in Popular Culture,” that covers about 100 years' worth of marketing. The exhibit, which will be at the Heritage Museum until sometime in 2006, features just about every kind of merchandise item you can think of, all sporting images or names of L&C expedition members. The items are organized by type—artworks, souvenirs, scientific materials, and so forth—and I am delighted (or perhaps embarrassed) to report that I seem to own many of these things.
There are hundreds of items and a short list here must suffice (the museum does not allow photographs): all sorts of books and magazines, wall hangings and tapestries, collector’s plates, replicas of tools and weapons taken on the expedition, paintings and posters, t-shirts and ball caps, dolls and toys, jigsaw puzzles and computer games, Christmas ornaments, key chains, shot glasses, candles and soaps, commemorative license plates, maps, botanical charts and seeds, whiskey and vodka labels, sew-on badges, stamps, figurines, candy bars, neckties, Viewmaster reels, bottle openers, and sheet music for older songs about the expedition.
There was one display about the women related to members of the expedition. These women included Lewis’ mother, Lucy Marks; Native American women who interacted with or knew the expedition; the laundress at their 1803-04 winter camp in Illinois; Clark’s two wives, Julia and Harriet; the wives of married expedition members and the women who became their wives afterward; Clark’s female descendants; Mary Anderson, who helped produce a key early edition of the L&C journals (but of course got little credit for it); and Barbara Kubik, a contemporary interpreter of the expedition believed by many to be the expert’s expert. All in all, this was a very interesting part of the exhibit.
Other aspects that I found particularly interesting were programs and materials from the 1905 bicentennial exhibition; a whole section about L&C themes in advertising; a display about many of the clubs and re-enactment organizations that have been formed over the years; and a section on native points of view called “‘Your Heroes are Not Our Heroes’: American Indian Perspective.” This provided information about some of the tribes encountered by L&C, especially those in the lower Columbia region, and also featured a couple books focusing on the native experience.
The overall exhibit could probably use a bit more actual interpretation of some of its themes, and it has a peculiar title that doesn't quite fit, but if you want to see how Lewis and Clark have been a part of history in a more ironic sense, then standing surrounded by hundreds of material items emblazoned with their faces and names is certainly one way to do it!