A Magnet for Memorabilia
Outpouring of Personal Tributes Pleases Crowd, Surprises Park Service
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page B01
One of the most popular components -- arguably the most popular component -- of the new National World War II Memorial proved this week to be something that never appeared on the blueprints, never was evaluated by design juries, never was picked apart by architecture critics.
It was the eclectic assortment of items left at the bases of pillars and in front of fountains: old photographs, pins, flags, eulogies stamped on T-shirts, floral wreaths, teddy bears, battle narratives stuffed in Ziploc bags, and brief biographies of the dead scribbled on cardboard panels.
"This stuff really grabs the attention," said Mitchell Grosky, a parent who chaperoned a group of 125 sixth-graders from Athol, Mass., through the memorial Wednesday. "The granite is beautiful and the fountains are lovely, but it's this that really brings it home. It makes the sacrifice more real, not only for the kids but for adults as well."
Critics of the memorial have said it lacks personal resonance, that it is emotionally cold for those who didn't live through the war and that it fails to provide historical perspective. If those criticisms are accepted, the addition of the objects might be seen as a correction penciled in by the public.
"I saw someone's ribbon, messages left by family members. It gives a very human context to why it was built," said Bryce Lynch, 26, of Pittsburgh. "It's not the memorial. It's the things left behind. That's the reason to come."
That might not sound like much of an endorsement for a project that took $175 million and 17 years to finish, though Lynch hastened to add that his overall impression of the structure was positive. But others shared his opinion of the memorial's unplanned acquisitions. On Wednesday afternoon, a clot of tourists formed in front of the wall of stars not to take snapshots of the gold-plated symbols of war dead; their cameras were pointed at the ground, where previous visitors had placed flowers, photos and other mementos.
Depositing such objects has become a tradition at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where visitors have left thousands of items, including medals, bottles of Jack Daniels, combat boots, letters, blueberry muffins, wedding rings, flags, photo albums, baseballs -- even a couple of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The National Park Service eventually hired people to collect and catalogue those items, and it opened the Museum Resource Center, a climate-controlled warehouse in Landover, to store them. The Smithsonian Institution has displayed selections of the items in its National Museum of American History.
But the Park Service had discouraged people from leaving things at the World War II Memorial, announcing before last weekend's dedication that objects would not be saved. Officials believed that the World War II site, like the Korean War Veterans Memorial, might attract a few items during the opening and at anniversaries, but not as many as the Vietnam wall.
But Wednesday, Park Service officials met to discuss the outpouring and decided to change the policy. The items will be saved, said agency spokesman Bill Line, and they, too, will be stored at the Museum Resource Center.
"Any mementos, any items left or that have already been left will not, repeat not, be discarded," Line said Wednesday.
Then, about 7 a.m. yesterday, a park ranger could be seen collecting items in black plastic trash bags, according to Steve Driebe of Pasadena, Calif. By midmorning, only fresh flowers were left in front of the wall of stars. Gone were the pictures in frames, the flags, the T-shirts and the penned remembrances.
"I asked the guy if they kept it, and he said, 'No, we throw it away,' " Driebe said. "He said this monument is not set up to catalogue stuff."
A ranger who was collecting items from in front of the pillars later in the day directed inquiries about the items to Line. An exasperated Line reiterated that the objects -- other than wilted flowers -- were to be saved.
"The superintendent met yesterday with rangers at the Mall so that everyone would be reading on the same page, but I guess that's not the case," Line said. "But we clearly are going to give all due and necessary respect, honor and dignity to all the items left there."
That said, the Park Service is strongly encouraging people to leave items with veterans groups, museums, historical societies or libraries.
"We want to very, very clearly go out of our way to discourage World War II veterans and their families from leaving items with sentimental value" at the memorial, Line said.
One alternative recommended by the Park Service is the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project. That project is compiling personal stories about veterans and is collecting memorabilia. For information about contributing stories or items, visit www.loc.gov/folklife/vets.
Visitors to the World War II Memorial also are encouraged to add veterans to the American Battle Monument Commission's Registry of Remembrances at www.wwiimemorial.com. The database is searchable via computer at the visitors center on the south side of the memorial.
But many visitors said the items at the memorial were a welcome addition.
"I think they should put a glass display here to show the things people leave," said Scott Winans of Lake Tahoe, Nev. "Some of these things bring tears to my eyes."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company