The National Mall and all its monuments are busy as holidays like Memorial Day approach. People arrive from all over the world to pay their respects to the men and women who gave their lives in service to this country.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is no exception, even on an unseasonably cold and rainy late-spring afternoon. American students dressed in colorful plastic ponchos walked alongside older couples carrying umbrellas – all were there to honor the people behind the names etched in stone.
The base of the Wall was crowded with tiny flags, roses, placards and handmade drawings — items meant to convey respect, or personal mementos left to honor those who were lost. These items aren’t just abandoned or thrown away, they become part of the Vietnam Memorial Collection.
Every night, National Park Service rangers assemble those items and keep them in temporary storage, according to Janet Donlin, museum
“I do accessioning, I do cataloging, which is putting the records into a collections database which the whole park service uses, the whole Department of the Interior uses the same database,” Donlin said. “I do loans, exhibits, coordinating with our partner, the Vietnam Memorial Veterans Fund, to build or choose items for their education center, and we do press visits, we do online exhibits when possible, and interpretation and tours on a very limited basis.”
The 400,000-item collection, which is kept in a temperature-, humidity- and light-controlled facility in this area the length of two football fields, officially started in 1984. Each item is stored in archival boxes or folders and methodical by the date it was left at the Wall.
When the items arrive at the MRC, they are held in an isolation room for 30 days, after which they become government property and
“Once it’s cataloged and entered into our database, we can use it for exhibits, we can use it for loans, send it out to different locations around the country. We can give our database to researches so they can access our collections, and so that’s essentially the ultimate goal,” Donlin clarified. All in the collection is for public use, and the Park Service wants to have the information available for educational purposes.
Donlin’s favorite items in the collection are “The Hero Bike,” a custom-built motorcycle commemorating the 37 individuals missing in proceedings or prisoners of war from Wisconsin; photographs of military members in-country and items veterans carried during the war that leave at the Wall.
Donlin clarified that some items at the Wall have no information or context associated with them, which makes it hard to properly catalogue or exhibit. Other items are left with personal clarification explaining the object’s history, it’s previous owner and why it was left at the Wall — information that enriches the object’s historic and personal value. Pieces that come with
Richard Luttrell, a Soldier with the 101st Airborne, 327th Infantry in 1968, left a photo of a young girl and a Viet Cong soldier, by the side of with a epistle addressed to that soldier, at the Wall in 1989. Luttrell had shot the Viet Cong soldier while on make the rounds, Donlin clarified; they surprised each other, and after a small stare-down, Luttrell shot on instinct and killed the man. Years later, Luttrell saw the photograph in a book published in this area the collection, and questioned if he could have the original back to help him track down the girl in the photo.
The MRC obliged, and, with the help of the Vietnamese ambassador, Luttrell was able to make contact with the girl, who was the man’s daughter. He delivered the photo to her in person, and begged her forgiveness, which she gave. The picture turned out to be the only photograph the girl would have of her father.
The Vietnam Memorial Collection is unique because it is more of a
“It’s visitors coming to a memorial and leaving things,” she continued. “They shape what they want to leave, we don’t really go out and find the type of things we want in our collection. We just pick it up from the Mall and if it’s something that’s unique, exceptional, kind of shows the purpose of the wall … the grieving process that they go through when they go there, the remedial and the remembering of the Soldiers who fought, we shape to keep it for our collection.”
To learn more in this area the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, and the other collections held at the Museum Resource Center, visit http://www.nps.gov/orgs/1802/vive.htm.
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