Striving to Solve History's Mysteries ; among the Six Million Artifacts Were Items from Lewis and Clark. but Records Were Poor: How Could She Find out Which Ones They Were?

Article excerpt

It all started with a fire. In 1899, a section of Moses Kimball's Boston Museum was damaged by flames. His heirs decided to close the museum, by then a collection of half a million objects, and instead stage theatricals.

But first they contacted Charles Willoughby at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (ethnology is the study of human cultures) at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Did Mr. Willoughby want any items from the Boston Museum?

In the 19th century, museums were relatively new. Kimball's collection, like that of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, was as likely to include a two-headed calf or the "Feejee Mermaid" (a creature constructed from fish and monkey parts) as it was artifacts from Indian peoples of the American West.

Willoughby was interested. One day in May he hitched a team to his wagon and drove it across the Charles River to Boston. He selected more than 1,400 objects and hauled them back to the Peabody.

Among the objects he chose were the only surviving native American objects that Lewis and Clark had collected on their famous expedition of 1804 to 1806. But more than a century would pass before the world would know which objects they were. It took anthropologist and curator Castle McLaughlin and her 20-plus colleagues seven years to identify the Lewis and Clark objects. How did they do it?

To be a museum curator, you have to be a bit of a detective. Ms. McLaughlin, an associate curator of North American ethnography at the Peabody, already knew something about the Lewis and Clark objects hidden among the six million items owned by the museum. The artifacts had traveled a long and twisting road.

Lewis and Clark had given the items to President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson in turn gave some to Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum, which in turn gave some to the Boston Museum. From there they went to the Peabody via Willoughby's cart in 1899.

McLaughlin had labels, lists, journals, and correspondence from the 19th century. She also had objects, hundreds of them. But how to put the pieces together to prove which items came from the expedition and which did not?

"This is the culmination of a lifetime of preparation," McLaughlin says. Sitting in her office, she is surrounded by sculptures and artwork from the American West. She has spent her whole life around Indian peoples and has enormous respect for them and the objects they create. She grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and her father collects Western native American art. She was "surrounded with mementos of the West and books about it," she says. "I was born sharing those interests."

McLaughlin decided to begin at the beginning: "We threw out everything that had been known before and started over," she says.

Step 1: Which objects are likely?

First she examined all the objects Willoughby brought from the Boston Museum. She separated out all the native American items, about 300 of them. Next she put the objects into categories - tobacco pouches, hats, pipes, arrows, robes - and began asking questions. Is this object old enough to have been collected by Lewis and Clark? Did it match a tribal style of the period? Did the explorers mention it or draw it in their journal? Is it in letters between Jefferson and the expedition?

McLaughlin and her team compared the objects to similar pieces in other museums. They researched parts of an object - such as mallard duck necks, feathers, shell beads, silk ribbons, furs, and wood - to place them geographically or culturally. Rose Holdcraft, head of conservation at the Peabody, could look through a microscope at a sample of cloth and pin down its date and country of origin based on the material and its weave. Carla Dove, the nation's only forensic ornithologist, identified bird feathers and beaks used in many objects. "She could identify the bird from a tiny piece of fluff," McLaughlin says with awe. …