The things they left behind
Eleanor Wimbish leaves something for Spanky every single year.
Usually, she leaves letters mounted on pieces of cardboard and wrapped with plastic. She’s also left Christmas trees, holiday cards and an Easter basket — all addressed to her son, Army Cpl. William R. Stocks, “Spanky.”
Wimbish is not the only one who regularly visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to leave items of remembrance. Ever since the construction of the memorial began in 1982, the public have been leaving items. The memorial was completed in 1984.
Now, the act of leaving something is a familiar occurrence with people leaving everything from letters, flowers, flags and toys, to uniform parts, patches, medals and craft projects from schools and PTSD groups all around the country. One group of veterans even left a motorcycle as a remembrance to the fallen soldiers with whom they served.
All of these things don’t get thrown away at the end of the day. In fact, almost everything is stored safely in the National Park Service Museum Resource Center unless it’s perishable. Museum technicians and curators look after these items after going through a process of isolating and cataloging them.
“It really is a very unique collection — and a vast majority of these items are left anonymously,” said director Bob Sonderman, who oversees all the preservation and cataloging of millions of items in the entire facility.
According to Sonderman, the Museum Resource Center currently houses more than 2 million artifacts from National Park Service sites in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial alone, it has more than 500,000 items collected and catalogued in the storage facility. The Museum Resource Center is also a temporary home to artifacts from Ellis Island, moved after Hurricane Sandy hit last year.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, in partnership with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, is currently working and raising funds to build The Education Center at the Wall, which would include a display of individual portraits of more than 58,000 veterans whose names are engraved on the memorial, reflection areas, timeline display and a long, winded path that would showcase many of the personal items that are currently stored at the center.
The Education Center at the Wall is tentatively projected to open in 2016. Until then, the technicians are custodians of the items.
“Our job is to maintain the integrity of these items whether they’d be displayed or not,” said Janet Donlin, one of the museum technicians who specializes in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection.
Donlin said she tries to read most of the letters and notes, and she often finds personal and untold stories of Vietnam war veterans and their families and friends.
“We didn’t know who Spanky, or who Spanky’s mom was, until a few years ago,” said Sonderman, “one day, she left a note with her full name for the first time — after about a decade.”
Two years ago, Eleanor Wimbish, who was then well into her mid-80s, was invited to the Museum Resource Center with many of her extended family members. And for her visit, the staff at the center displayed everything that they had collected from her for more than a decade.
“She brought all of her grandchildren, and they were just looking at everything,” said Sonderman. “And it was such a remarkable experience for them and for us.”