Lewis and Clark on a human scale

It's been 200 years since Lewis, Clark, and their "Corps of Discovery" set out to explore the lands west of the Mississippi in search of, among other things, wooly mammoths, mountains of pure salt, and a tribe of blue-eyed, Welsh-speaking Indians.

There will be an abundance of events, television specials, and websites dedicated to this year's bicentennial, but at least one site takes a slightly different approach in presenting its subject. By concentrating less on the natural history and more on the social and cultural histories encountered during the expedition, Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition brings continental exploration down to a human scale.

A result of seven years of research and fourteen months of development, Lewis and Clark was created for the Missouri Historical Society by (the thematically appropriate) Terra Incognita Productions. Surprisingly fast for such a media rich site, the presentation offers a full complement of stills, animation, QuickTime video, audio and text - but even more impressive is the seamless manner in which all the information is presented.

Borderless scrolling text boxes, maps and other images that open into zoomable, dragable, and printable enlargements -complete with their own background information- and video clips that start playing almost instantly without waiting for the entire file to download, make this a functionally as well as a visually attractive production. Even such touches as an opening image that reveals itself in an expanding 'wipe,' rather than simply appearing full blown on the screen, do their bit to help keep the interest of the visitor.

Launched into an independent popup window, the online exhibition opens with a Native prophecy and a Presidential observation - accompanied by an audio background of rolling thunder and flute music. The main component of the exhibit is the interactive Journey - a 39-step map which documents significant milestones of the team's Outbound and Return Routes. Every step along the map (which lures the surfer with such titles as "Barking Squirrels," and "Volcanoes in South Dakota?") links to more detailed, localized charts - each ornamented with a relevant audio background. Scattered across the local maps are elements that include text, audio clips of eyewitness accounts, zoomable period images and artifacts, video interviews reflecting Native American perspectives, links to 'Related Themes' (more later), and such in-depth features as tours of eastern cities the explorers passed through on their way to the unknown.

Surfers can either retrace the expedition step by step, following arrows on the large scale maps (the traveller's overall position is indicated on a silhouette icon of the US), or use the main map (linked through the same silhouette icon) as a jumping off point to random destinations. At any time either version of the map can be enhanced with modern landmarks to help virtual explorers get their bearings.

Themes takes ten topics, ranging from the expectations for an unexplored territory, to methods used in communicating with people of a different tongue. (How's your 'robe language?') "Animals: Species and Spirits" offers a revealing comparison of the two cultures' ways of classifying living things - from the European collections of Species, Orders, and Kingdoms, to the Aboriginal groupings of Sky Beings, Water Beings, and ally/enemy relationships between animals. "Trade and Property" provides concrete proof of the saying, 'one man's trash is another man's treasure.'

Finally, the Gallery holds more than 300 images and artifacts from the National Bicentennial Exhibition, which can be browsed or explored through a customizable keyword search. (All the items in the Gallery link to zoomable and text-enhanced enlargements.)

At all times, visitors are one click away from any of the three main sections or the interactive exhibition's intro page, while back at the Lewis and Clark homepage, surfers can also find breaking news and itineraries of the touring exhibition, teaching units and lesson plans for school use, and an extensive and varied list of related publications and websites.

It's difficult for us to imagine a time when a nation's own back yard could be a complete mystery to its citizens. Lewis and Clark gives us a hint of the impact on explorers who didn't find wooly mammoths, but did encounter their first grizzly bear. We also share the experiences of natives encountering men with 'upside down faces' who would trade anything for articles as worthless as beaver skins.

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition can be found at http://www.lewisandClarkexhibit.org.

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