The long goodbye to the people who fell in Vietnam started with Maya Lin's memorial wall in 1982, but it continues to grow as families, friends, and veterans leave mementos at the Wall. There are 25,000 objects left by mourners, out of which 500 are on display at a new exhibition titled, "Personal Legacy: The Healing of a Nation," at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The objects range from a POW tiger cage to teddy bears, muddy jungle boots hung with ribbons and medals, metal dog tags, personal letters, even a yellow Corvette model car, its back seat filled with yellow and red paper roses.
Some of the objects remain an enigma, their meaning known only to the giver. As Edward Ezell, one of the curators, says, the items "demonstrate the sort of complicated relationships that develop among people who are in a crisis or war or natural disaster, the sort of bonding that goes on there."
In wartime, Dr. Ezell says, when someone is killed "there is no opportunity to continue those conversations.... People are closing the circle, trying to complete the unfinished conversations."
Because this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Wall, nearly 1,500 objects appeared between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
"One of the basic decisions we made was that we were not going to decorate the set, as it were ... everything in the exhibit [consists] of things that were left at the wall." The collection "has to be treated with extreme respect. It is like gathering objects left at a grave."
Funding for the exhibiton, which runs through June 7, comes from Beyond the Wall, a non-profit volunteer organization. It was produced by the museum in collaboration with the National Park Service.