Sunday, May 26, 2013

The poignant letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Joan, Ashar and I spent three days in Washington, D.C., last July, mostly to see the vast and amazing collections housed by Smithsonian Institution.

In the late afternoon of the second day, we made the short walk to see the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. A thunderstorm had just passed through, and, as we came to the stirring, Maya Lin-designed Memorial Wall, one of the first things that struck me was the presence of soggy papers along the wall.

The memorial opened in November 1982 and, since then, notes, letters, flowers, flags and sentimental objects have been placed along its path nearly every day.

Some of the items have been large — a Harley-Davidson motorcycle1, original sculptures and teddy bears.

But most of them are simply pieces of paper.

Poignant notes from family members, friends and complete strangers.

Gratifyingly, all of these items are collected and preserved (with the exception of flowers) by way of a top-notch "museum property system." According to the National Park Service's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection website:
"Objects are collected and inventoried each night by Park Rangers who work for National Capital Parks-Central. ... The objects picked up are then treated as part of a historic collection, and are cataloged and placed in storage, as if they were extremely old and valuable."
The number of items collected annually peaked in 1992 and 1993, but thousands are still collected each year. There are no plans to stop collecting or preserving the items.

As I mentioned, it had just rained on that July 2012 afternoon. And so the papers left at the wall were very wet. Certainly harder to preserve than notes left on dry days.

These are some of the photos I took that afternoon.

For more information about letters and objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, see these websites and articles:

1. The National Park Service describes the motorcycle this way: "A 'show' Harley-Davidson motorcycle, left during Memorial Day 1995 by motorcycle enthusiasts from Wisconsin. The license plate is stamped 'HERO.' The plate was summarily retired by the governor of Wisconsin. The bike's extended fork is festooned with 37 dog tags which are representative of the 37 casualties and missing in action of Wisconsin. The body of the bike is painstakingly painted with Vietnam scenes."

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