Who would have thought of the general public as curators of a major museum collection -- curators whose job is to choose objects which will be placed in a collection that will be preserved and interpreted for perpetuity. This is exactly what has happened at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where objects have been left by the public. Most museum objects are collected because they relate to a special event, person, or natural wonder. The museum curator selects these specific objects to tell a story. However, in this case, it is the public who collects and leaves the objects left at the Wall. These objects reflect the experiences of over 25 million visitors who each have an individual reason or story that goes with the objects that are represented in this collection. While these objects may have a central theme of the Vietnam War or Generation, the power of the Memorial and the individual stories behind these objects is really the focus of this collection.
The National Park Service certainly never thought of starting a collection when it entered into an agreement with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, who were going to build a memorial to those who had served in Vietnam and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. At that time, we were concerned only with receiving a memorial that was to heal the wounds, suffered during the Vietnam era, of the Nation and its individuals whether they were pro-war or anti-war.
But as we know, this is exactly what happened. The public began leaving "things" at the Memorial which later became known as memorabilia. These "things" that are left by the public do not fit the standard definition of an artifact or historical objects which are terms used to describe something over 50 years old. But whether they fit the definition or not, this was the start of one of the most unique and interesting museum collections that the National Park Service would deal with in the 1980's and 1990' s.
The phenomena of leaving "things" was reported to have started when someone dropped a purple heart in the concrete as the wall on which the panels would be mounted was being poured. It continued throughout the first two years of construction and by the time the Memorial was turned over to the National Park Service on November 11, 1984, leaving objects at the Memorial had gained momentum. Many of these objects were picked up by the public, but others were collected by the maintenance and ranger staff. Media attention to this phenomena focused our thoughts on how to deal with these "things". We decided to develop them as a museum collection. The first group of memorabilia numbered 554 objects and included objects left during the first two years. The most recent count is over 50,000 objects. Since 1984, we have continued to set museum precedent for modern documentary collections while deciding what to do with these "things" that the public was leaving. Our first step was to decide under what category of accountability these objects would be placed, the regular property system or the museum property system. We chose to take them into the museum property system.
After several years of studying different ways to handle this collection, we arrived at a solution. Objects are collected and inventoried each night by Park Rangers who work for National Capital Parks-Central. This is the park that oversees the National Mall as well as the monuments and memorials in the Washington, D.C. area. 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. One of the first news shows that dealt with this collection in detail was Ted Koppel and Nightline. On Memorial Day, 1986, Mr. Koppel filmed a documentary about these common everyday objects being treated as part of a museum collection. Indeed, he was seen on television picking up cans of C-rations and army issue toilet paper while wearing curator's white gloves. He was able to convey the message about why "people leave things .... at the Wall" and the effect the Memorial has on the American Public. Even after all these years, it continues to be the Memorial which is the focus of the story, for if it had never been built, there would be no place to leave the objects that make up this collection.
In order to better understand this collection, we ask ourselves many questions such as why is the Wall so powerful and what makes people bring things and leave them? The public brings not only the customary things that are left at other War Memorials such as flowers and flags, but objects that are traditionally handed down from generation to generation such as medals, uniforms, dog tags and other military-related material of war. They also leave letters, photographs, plaques and other similar items that have been purposely prepared with the intent to leave them at the Wall.
The Wall has a power that is felt differently by each visitor who comes to the Memorial. The same questions continue to be asked. Why does it compel people to come and leave things? Why are some left spontaneously and others prepared at home, brought to Washington, or in many cases sent to Washington with someone who happens to be going to the Memorial? Why do some people bring things to leave and then find themselves unable to do so? Why do people come to visit in the middle of the night and why are there people who to this day, 14 years later, still cannot bring
themselves to visit the Memorial?
In the beginning, people did not know that the National Park Service would save this material, but they left it anyway. Mothers and fathers left teddy bears and favorite pictures of their children. They left birthday cards, Christmas trees, letters, and poems to their loved ones who were lost in this war. Wives, husbands, children, comrades, friends, fiancees and total strangers leave "things" at the Wall to either commemorate or denounce the effect this war had on the nation. Objects have been left by individuals from foreign countries as well as from our own citizens who now use the Memorial to register their protest against many current social and political issues. While these objects are not usually Vietnam related, they are kept in the collection as part of the offerings left at the Memorial. A wall to which people feel drawn and a wall which is used to express their thoughts.
In October 1992, an exhibit opened at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, that put these objects on view to the public for the first time. The exhibit is extremely popular and has been extended indefinitely. There are over 1,500 objects on display with many of them service related such as military patches, dog tags, and service bars. Other objects are things of a more personal nature such as photographs, letters and teddy bears. We have tried to include objects that are representative of the different types of objects that are now part of the collection. It is our hope that this exhibit will also be able to share with the public the depth of this collection and the effect that the Memorial has had on the world. As with the objects left at the Memorial, every visitor to this exhibit will bring their own experiences with them. These unique experiences will recreate a similar effect that the Memorial has had on it's visitors. Further exhibits have been developed for other cities and countries to allow people who do not visit Washington to see this collection.
To date, we have had four other exhibits that showcase this collection:
The Museum of Our National Heritage - Lexington, MA
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library - Grand Rapids, MI
The Jersey Explorer Children's Museum - East Orange, NJ
Imperial War Museum - London, England
The exhibits at the Jersey Explorers Children Museum and the Imperial War Museum are currently open. If you would like to visit the exhibit "Vietnam Memories - Stories left at the Wall", the museum is located at 192 Dodd Street, East Orange, NJ, 201-673-6900. The exhibit was produced in conjunction with the New Jersey Youth Corps and AmeriCorps at Jersey City State College. The Corps members did most of the construction and development of the exhibit and did a fine job.
The Imperial War Museum is located on Lambeth Road, London England. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection objects are part of a permanent exhibit entitled Conflicts since 1945.
In addition to the exhibits, we have worked closely with partners over the last several years to develop other materials to bring the story of the Memorial and this collection to the public:
Offerings at the Wall - Artifacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collections, Turner Publishing, Inc., text by Thomas B. Allen, 1995
Beyond the Wall - Stories behind the Vietnam Wall, Magnet Interactive Studios, Inc., 1995
The answers to all the questions that we and others ask, can only be speculated, and they might never be known, but as long as people still come to the Wall, whether they leave "things" or not, it fulfills the purpose for which this Memorial was originally intended - To Heal a Nation. This memorial works for it was created by the people, paid for by the people, the collection was made by the people and the Smithsonian exhibit was funded by the people. This is truly the peoples' collection.
Pamela Beth West
Former Director (retired)
Museum Resource Center
Duery Felton is Museum Curator for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. He can be reached by telephone at 301-832-3950, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
If you know anything about an object left at the Memorial and you wish to share that information with us, you can send us the information electronically. By sending us this information, you will help improve the documentation of the collection for future generations.
Last Updated: June 5, 1997