THE Smithsonian Institution has taken a good deal of heat lately because of some sophomoric pieties formulated by the staff responsible for mounting an exhibit on the Enola Gay and the bomb it dropped on Hiroshima fifty years ago next summer. But the National Museum of American History bears ample witness to the fact that Smithsonian curators can do wonderful things with topics as diverse as bridge building and the great African-American migration from the rural South to the factories of the North after the First World War.
The military section is particularly impressive, containing as it does one of George Washington’s big campaign tents along with an honest-to-God gunboat that served his cause and plenty of muskets and swords and field guns. And of course military equipment always looks fine on display, since it tends to be made of durable material that ages prettily and is usually free of cloying ornamentation. But the most powerful exhibit in the whole section is what at first looks like a drift of incoherent rubbish sealed behind glass.
Jennifer Locke helped put it there. She managed this particular exhibition, which is called “Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation” and is made up of things left at the Vietnam War Memorial. As Leslie Alien tells in this issue, as soon as that wall with the names of the American dead carved in the polished black granite was dedicated, it was more than a monument. It became a place of pilgrimage, and the pilgrims left things there. Lots of the offerings were the flowers and little flags one might have expected, but lots more were messages —all personal, many eloquent and explicit—to the people whose names floated on the shining stone.
To its enormous credit, the National Park Service began saving them and now has an astonishingly large, all-but-unmanageable collection, a secret museum inaccessible to the public. Jennifer Locke selected a few emblematic items from it to put on display. Her show opened on October 28, 1992.
“We hadn’t expected what happened,” says Locke. “The lines! There was a two-and-a-half-hour wait, and everyone was great about it. Nobody pushed, nobody got impatient, and when gold star mothers or disabled vets showed up, people would just stand back and wave them right forward. Thirty thousand brochures—that’s a year’s worth—went in less than three months.”
It’s not hard to see why. Jane Colihan, who was doing the picture research for the story, and I were down there to choose items to illustrate. I was surprised by the number of people the museum had drawn on a Thursday morning in October. It seemed a noisy, happy crowd, but nobody stayed noisy once they understood what they were seeing in this particular corner of the immense museum. While Jane and I were talking with Jennifer, a couple of teenagers carne running around the corner, tugging at each other. “Hey, what the hell’s all this?” one of them yapped, and twenty seconds later they were both gravely absorbed, moving slowly along the display, silent before this colloquy between the living and dead.
Jane and I had learned all about the exhibit by the time we got there, but knowing and seeing are different things. The relics aren’t grand, but how they pierce:
Beneath a golf club is the note “Here is your driver back. Use it well now that you have the time.”
Scrawled on a Holiday Inn telephone pad: “ BILLY—IT’S BEEN 21 YRS. STILL MISS YOU AND THINK OF YOU DAILY. HIGH SCHOOL BUDDIES. MACK .”
“ REAR ECHELON M.F.’S. THAT’S WHAT WE WERE ‘FONDLY’ KNOWN AS. BOB, MORTARS DIDN’T CARE, DID THEY? REMF’S BLEED AND DIE JUST AS DEAD!! I’LL REMEMBER ALWAYS. ‘SLUSH’ 330 RRC, 313TH RRB. PLEIKU/NHA TRANG 1969-1970. ”
And in the last case a Silver Star awarded Cpl. Michael S. Kilpatrick of the 1st Marine Division for gallantry in action in Kuwait on the night of February 24, 1991. It is pinned to the deep blue watered-silk folder that holds its citation, and written on the citation isTo Dad, Love, Your Son.
Embarrassed to find myself having difficulty speaking with Jennifer after taking in this last one, I told her sheepishly, “Sorry. I thought by now I’d have gotten used . . .”
She shook her head. “You don’t get used to it.”