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The Clark expedition through Northern China in 1908–9 was a rigorous scientific exploration, collecting data in the disciplines of geology, meteorology, astronomy, cartography, botany, and zoology. The seriousness and significance of the expedition is particularly surprising when one considers that its organizer and leader, Sterling Clark, is today largely remembered as a collector and patron of fine art. The Clark expedition was in no way an exercise in the looting of Chinese cultural treasures; indeed, it stands in marked contrast to other expeditions of this period largely because of the cogency of its scientific makeup.
In the researching of the expedition history, what seems striking is the scarcity of the material culture of the expedition itself. This was a massive undertaking, involving dozens of pack animals, a large exploratory team, and a support staff of thirty persons. Such an expeditionary force required vast amounts of provisions and equipment, yet with the exception of a few precision instruments and significant biological and geological specimen collections, little material remains of such an ambitious endeavor. The Clark expedition is well represented textually in Through Shên-kan, the book that documents the journey and the data of various kinds produced. It includes a wealth of images, which have also been lost in their original glass negative form.
Phantoms of the Clark Expedition, a project at The Explorers Club in New York, highlights not only what Clark and his team took from China but also what they brought to the site of inquiry. Thus, the equipment and provisions to undertake such a complex tour are given a new importance that emphasizes the labor of the journey rather than the particular scientific results. In this way, the Clark team itself becomes the locus of an ethnographic investigation, an attempt to understand the cultural underpinnings of a distinct social group, based on their physical belongings. Needless to say, these materials gathered and interrogated are not exclusive to this particular expedition but rather are those shared by explorers globally. Certain objects, doubtlessly essential to exploration, are carefully reproduced as papier-mâché surrogates or specters of themselves. Some of these are arranged into tableaux of the expedition archetypes, such as the campfire, provision store, or the specimen. Others are arranged more indexically, a taxonomic grouping based on utility, for example. Objects in the exhibition oscillate between the general conditions and needs of all explorers and the particular goals, results, and follies of the Clark expedition itself.
Any consideration of an historical expedition strives to understand the difference between pernicious colonial expansion and scientific inquiry. In most cases, including the Clark expedition, the distinction between the two is too fine and too utterly entangled to discern. The specter of imperial exploration haunts both this exhibition and the halls of The Explorers Club as well. Should the term exploration ever hope to retain its productive and progressive potential, these ghosts of domination must first be acknowledged and, ultimately, exorcised.