Like many other states, Oklahoma has a long winding history connected to the establishment of our country. Recently, the Gilcrease Museum unveiled a new exhibition titled, America: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Nation.
This one-of-a-kind exhibition provides visitors the opportunity to walk through the first 300 years of our country's history beginning with Captain John Smith's first steps in Virginia in 1607 through Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and conquering the last frontier of westward expansion.
The exhibit is composed of seven rooms and 250 items, each held together by a different stage or event in American history.
All of the artwork, artifacts and archival materials seen in the show has been drawn from the Gilcrease Museum's extensive and diverse collections.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors will have the opportunity to view a short but thorough video called, "American Encounters," narrated by Tom Brokaw that provides an introduction to the exhibit. The video takes visitors through each of the major events covered in the exhibition and highlights key artifacts, paintings and documents visitors are about to see. The narration also provides visitors with important historical information, so they are better prepared to understand and fully appreciate the significance of what they are about to see as they walk through the exhibit.
The first room in the exhibition tells the story of Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in North America. Highlights include a book written by Captain John Smith titled, The Generall Historie of Virgina.
In this book, Smith reveals first-hand accounts of the largely antagonistic relationship between English settlers and native people as well as his famed relationship with Pocahontas. The room also includes early maps of New England and a painting of Smith landing at Jamestown on May 14, 1607 painted by John Mix Stanley.
The second room is largely dominated by an enormous painting by celebrated American painter Benjamin West. The painting depicts a famous event that likely never occurred between William Penn and the Delaware Indians. In the painting, Penn and members of the Delaware tribe are signing a treaty of alliance, though there is no historical proof that this event ever happened.
Instead, the painting functions more effectively as an allegory of Colonial America. Also seen in the room are portraits of Cherokee Chief Cunne Shote and future President of the United States, George Washington. In the center of the room are authentic pewter plates and pint mugs as well as a musket and bayonet.
As visitors continue on through the gallery, the next room pushes past the original tensions between English settlers and Native Americans and focuses on the struggles early colonists faced against the British Empire.
The most celebrated object in the exhibit is found here: A certified copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by Benjamin Franklin, originally intended for presentation to Fredric the Great of Prussia in 1777. This room also houses the exhibit's most unexpected painting: A self-portrait by rare female artist, Maria Cecilia Louis Casway.
Casway caught the eye of Thomas Jefferson after his wife died, though, she was unhappily married. While they were separated most of their lives, the two kept a correspondence for many years.
Pressing onward through the exhibition, visitors find maps, weapons and other various artifacts related to Jefferson's famed Louisiana Purchase.
The star of this room is a Jefferson Piece Medals, which were given to Lewis and Clark to offer to Native Americans they encountered on their journey as a symbol of "peace."
The front of the silver medal features the bust of Thomas Jefferson and the back two hands shaking below a crossed pipe and tomahawk.
In actuality, the peace medals were not really meant to symbolize peace between the settlers and Native Americans but instead acceptance of English dominance in the land. The Native Americans misunderstood the intent of the peace medals, which led to further mistrust and animosity amongst the two distinct groups.
The following room includes artifacts and paintings from Andrew Jackson's presidency in which he enacted the Indian Removal Act of 1828. Under this act, the government confiscated all Native American homelands east of the Mississippi and relocated thousands of natives to what is present day Oklahoma during what is remembered as the "Trail of Tears."
In addition, the room features artifacts such as an eagle pommel sword, tomahawk, powder horn and whale oil lamps from the war between the United States and Mexico. The result of this war allowed the U.S. to expand as far west as the Pacific Ocean fulfilling it goal: "From sea to shining sea."
The second to last room of the exhibition is dedicated to the division between the North and the South during Lincoln's presidency. The most eye-catching piece in the room is a striking bronze bust of Lincoln, his face showing signs of wear as the battle over slavery threatens to pull the nation apart. This room also contains the exhibit's other most notable document, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of only 48 prints signed by Lincoln.
The exhibition is concluded with clothes, inventions and paintings that represent our nation regaining its identity after the Civil War, continuing its relations with Native Americans and moving forward with technology and new ideas that would shape the future of the country.
The exhibit displays through July 3, 2011. More information is available online at gilcrease.org.
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