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Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center: history in art, activities

Back to Explore North Dakota
by Kent Brick

Statuary depicting Lewis & Clark and Native American
Statuary depicting a meeting of a Native American and Lewis & Clark greet visitors to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn., N.D.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, near Washburn, is a monument of vivid history, and an invitation to experience how native people and European settlers once lived.

In 1997, the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation (Foundation), in cooperation with the N.D. Parks and Recreation Department, built the North Dakota Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center (Interpretive Center), using private and public funding.

The Interpretive Center overlooks the Missouri River at the junction of U.S. Highway 83 and N.D. Highway 200A. It is located just two miles from a replica of Fort Mandan, erected in 1972 by the McLean County Historical Society, with a visitor center added in 2002.

The Foundation development of the Interpretive Center occurred as the national bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was unfolding. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the courageous exploration of the newly acquired western territory for President Thomas Jefferson, from 1804-1806. Their journals provide detailed documentation of the expedition’s winter of 1804-05, quartered in Fort Mandan, which was constructed in the vicinity of the current Interpretive Center and the Fort Mandan replica.

In 2015, the Foundation transferred day-to-day operation and assets of the Interpretive Center facilities to the N.D. Parks and Recreation Department. The foundation continues to support the Interpretive Center in a fundraising capacity.

Not your typical museum
“The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn is not your typical museum,” says Kevin Kirkey, N.D. Parks and Recreation site supervisor for the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan.

“There are certainly things to see, but there are a lot of things to do, for all kinds of learners and all age groups. We have history, art and culture; we have hands-on activities. You can do the things that Lewis and Clark did. You can play the games that the Mandan-Hidatsa people played. It's about being a part of an experience,” Kirkey adds.

Kirkey says the Interpretive Center underwent an expansion, starting in 2012. “We now have a great new museum store to extend your experience. We have exhibit galleries, temporary exhibit galleries, reading spaces, a great library and a wonderful place for us to curate exhibits. It helps us keep things fresh and new,” he shares.

The Foundation now plays an independent support role for the Interpretive Center facilities and operations.

“The foundation is focusing its attention on fundraising efforts to enhance and complement the state of North Dakota’s work at the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan,” says David Borlaug, foundation president. Borlaug says the Foundation is locating its offices in downtown Bismarck, and that a fine arts gallery will be an integral part of that location.

Borlaug says the foundation commitment to treasured artwork – which in the past featured acquiring collections of 19th century masters George Catlin and Karl Bodmer – will continue for the benefit of the Interpretive Center. Art displays in the new Foundation facilities will showcase area artists, such as Walter Piehl, Jessica Wachter, Monte Yellow Bird, and Gary Miller.

Borlaug says the art treasure collections which Interpretive Center has showcased were made possible, initially, through the generous support of Alvera Bergquist, now a Bismarck resident. He adds that Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives of North Dakota have been also been prominent with guidance and generosity for the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan.

Among these cooperatives are Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, Minnkota Power Cooperative, McLean Electric Cooperative (which serves the Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan) and Verendrye Electric Cooperative. In addition, the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives has provided support, most recently for the Interpretive Center launch of its Centennial Farms recognition program.

Currently at Interpretive Center
The 2016 line-up of displays and visitor activities at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center is steeped in art and history reflecting early settlement and modern days in this Missouri River area. The line-up includes:

• “Carving Leather: The Art of Chip Liebel” exhibit through July 5. Discover what leather can do in this exhibit of more than 30 works by North Dakota artist and saddle maker Chip Liebel. Most pieces will be available for sale.

• “Catlin’s Hunting Scenes and Amusements” exhibit,  through July 17; a complete set of lithographs from George Catlin’s “Hunting Scenes and Amusements” collection, printed in London,at Day and Haghe in 1844; images based largely on Catlin’s Missouri River travels.

• Explorer Days, June 4-5; experience authentic muzzleloaders, learning the skills of Lewis & Clark Expedition members, like foraging for wild food, building a fire, translating American Indian words and casting musket balls.

• Capital in Farm Country, June 19; historical walk through downtown Bismarck, featuring major turning points in farming history.

• Lewis & Clark Farmers Market, Fridays from June 17 to Oct. 28; fresh produce from the region.

• “Prairie Plen Air Painters” exhibit, July 9-Oct. 31; display, sale of original works by local artists painted on the Interpretive Center grounds during the June Explorer Days.

• Music in Harmony Park, July 15; lively, musical evening in Interpretive Center’s Harmony Park, with live bands, jumpy castles, a farmers market and other vendors.

• “Dark Silver: Collection of Black Glass Ambrotypes” exhibit, July 16-Oct. 31; artist Shane Balkowitsch, practitioners of 19th-century technique, creating photographs of silver on black-painted glass.

• Vern Erickson exhibit, July 30-Oct. 31; for years, through oil paintings, Erickson has been bringing to life the history and heritage of the Upper Great Plains.

The Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan are open seven days a week; a nominal admission charge is assessed (in 2016, children are admitted free of charge). For more information, go to www.parkrec.nd.gov. For information about the Interpretive Center Foundation, go to www.fortmandan.com.

Kent Brick is editor of North Dakota Living. He can be reached at kbrick@ndarec.com.