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Inside the Peabody Museum rests a little-known historical treasure: the only remains of Lewis and Clark’s collection of American Indian artifacts.
Included in the collection are some the oldest preserved American Indian artifacts, currently on display to celebrate the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition across North America.
The artifacts’ rarity and age make them valuable to scholars in many fields, and this exhibit, along with the recently released book Arts of Diplomacy, is the culmination of six years of collaborative research among scientists, curators, art historians, American Indians, and graphic designers both at Harvard and throughout the United States.
Instead of concentrating on the ecological aspects of the expedition, the Peabody exhibit focuses on the important diplomatic relationship between the explorers and the natives.
“Although Lewis and Clark were not the first non-Indians to visit the area, they were the first representatives of the United States to interact with the Indians,” says Dr. Irene C.McLaughlin, the exhibit’s curator. “They knew they had to establish diplomatic relations with the tribes, and that required its own kind of etiquette.”
Various ceremonial gifts, such as the Jefferson peace medal and pipe tomahawk, were given by Lewis and Clark to tribal chiefs, who reciprocated with gifts of clothing like the ornately fringed warrior shirt.
Similarly, the importance of ceremonial pipe-smoking as a major diplomatic ritual is clearly discernible from the prominent, central placement of a large pipe crested with feathers and red cloth.
Another highlight of the exhibit is an elaborately decorated woman’s dress, which reveals the international nature of trade at the time. The dress is appliquéd with English brass buttons, cowry shells from the Pacific, brilliantly blue Italian glass beads, and colorfully dyed porcupine quills.
The back of the exhibit contains artwork by contemporary American Indians artists in the same media as the artifacts, providing an interesting comparison between objects separated by two hundred years of American history.
These contemporary works of art are complemented by a video of fiber artist Pat Courtney Gold explaining how a basket in the Peabody collection inspired her to learn basket weaving and to revive the art form in her American Indian community.
Some of the Peabody’s collection of artifacts is currently on loan to the Missouri Historical Society for the bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, which will be commemorated at Harvard as well, through a series of lectures, musical performances, craft demonstrations.
—“From Nation to Nation: Examining Lewis and Clark’s Indian Collection,” through Dec. 30, 2005.
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