The Filson on Main
By Michael S. Mahoney
In May The Filson proudly opened its "Lewis and Clark: The Exploration of the American West" exhibit. Housed in Brown-Forman’s newly renovated building at 626 W. Main Street, the exhibit highlights the local connection to a journey that transformed the nation. Precious items from The Filson’s collection, including letters written by William Clark to his older brother Jonathan during and after the expedition, are now prominently displayed in the heart of downtown Louisville.
The exhibit is divided into three distinct parts, beginning with a section devoted to the settlement of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. Migration to this First West paved the way for Lewis and Clark’s bold journey into the unknown. Portraits of early pioneers like Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton and Bland Ballard give a face to the country’s first westward expansion. These portraits each have a flip-up panel which reveals the ultimate fate of its subject. A giant salt kettle, surveying tools and a beautifully preserved Kentucky long rifle are among the objects which tell the story of the frontier. Domestic items belonging to the Clark family, including spectacles and a foot warmer, show another side of early pioneer life.
After learning about the Kentuckians who formed the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery, visitors then follow the famed journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. A large map shows the route it took. Panels describing the men’s winter camps and encounters with various Indian tribes document the endurance, courage and diplomatic skill needed to cross the continent with a minimum of mishap. Though equipped with the kind of firearms and tools on display, the Corps faced many formidable obstacles. A grizzly bear rug reminds us of one such peril. Throughout this middle section of the exhibit, William Clark’s own words offer an eyewitness account of the progress of the expedition. Audio wands let visitors listen to excerpts from Clark’s letters as he describes gathering supplies, keeping records and making the glorious return to St. Louis in 1806.
The exhibit concludes with an examination of Lewis and Clark’s legacy. While fortifying the white man’s sense of "Manifest Destiny," the Expedition sadly led to the economic and cultural demise of the Indians. The New West was opened up but at a terrible price. Key figures of the Corps of Discovery also had varied fates. The invaluable Sacagawea returned to the Mandan-Hidatsa people while York, Clark’s African American slave, struggled for his freedom. William Clark, who married happily and enjoyed professional success, prospered while his old friend Meriwether Lewis met a tragic end. Pride and regret both characterize the aftermath of the journey.
The exhibit is an amazing teaching tool. Special activities, like scavenger hunts, which call on students to search for information within the exhibit, further The Filson’s educational mission. Some school groups have already taken advantage of this unique learning opportunity, and many others will follow. As the nation commemorates the bicentennial of the Expedition, children and adults alike can come into contact with the genuine substance of our history. Patrons from all over the country, some from states traversed by Lewis and Clark, have expressed their delight with the scope of the exhibit.
"Lewis and Clark: The Exploration of the American West" is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday, 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Admission is $4.00 for adults, $2.00 for children ages 6-12, and free for children under 6. Members of The Filson Historical Society pay a reduced admission fee of $2.00. Group rates are also available.
A gift shop offers a variety of books, dolls, maps and other memorabilia. Parking is widely available near the Main Street gallery, and several restaurants cater to Main Street traffic.
As the nation celebrates the bicentennial of the Expedition,
children and adults alike can come into contact with the
genuine substance of our country’s history at Filson
The Filson Historical Society