Monday, August 31, 2009

An Educator’s First Visit to the NLEM’s Collections Facility

By Dean MacLeod, Community Education Specialist

Have you ever been invited into the inner sanctum of a special place where you once might have suspected you’d have no business going? In early June, I made my first visit to the NLEM collections facility, just 30 minutes from our offices in downtown DC. There, I saw numerous artifacts that made me proud to be helping to build the NLEM: all manner of handcuffs, prisoner-made shivs and shanks (weapons) once seized as contraband, decades-old mug shots, Al Capone’s bullet-proof vest, and the box that holds Peter Weller’s Robocop 2 suit!

Okay, okay, I know you’re thinking, “It was just the box!”—but as an educator who doesn’t often see this side of museum practice, it was still pretty neat. It’s great to know that the Museum will be a place where we can tell the stories behind the material culture of our law enforcement officers, and in turn, demonstrate the important role they play to uphold the Constitution and shape our society.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Memorial Collection

By Vanya Scott, Registrar/Collections Manager

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is a powerful public commemoration of the fallen from those who make up the Thin Blue Line that protects American civil society. The message of the Memorial, acknowledging the honor and sacrifice of fallen law enforcement officers, resonates most powerfully in the individual stories that objects, photographs, and written messages reflect.

Dear Uncle Mark, I miss you. I fondly remember that fall when we picked the giant pumpkins in your garden. Todd can ride a 2-wheeler now. I love you. Love, Emily (1996)

Memorial items left during Police Week 2009Police Week 2009 was the first National Police Week I was privileged to attend. I found the profusion of objects of all types, including stuffed animals, patches, t-shirts, photographs, pins, plaques, flowers, candles, coins, figurines—the variety seemed endless—to be quite evocative and powerfully emotional. The National Law Enforcement Museum preserves objects from the Memorial wall that are left during National Police Week remembrance activities each year, carefully storing them in a secure and climate-controlled facility for future study. Police Week memorial collection objects have been saved since the 1990s, and after my experience at Police Week 2009, objects collected in earlier years suddenly hold new meaning for me. Each object bears witness to the mourner’s loss and has its own unique message, a message of private mourning placed in public context.

Jeff – It angers me that you died possibly thinking that no one was coming to help you. It angers me that you bled to death…the system failed you. It angers me that I have learned so much about you, through your wife, after your death…We never formally met, but I am your friend. We will do, and I will speak for all L.E.O.’s, anything and everything to see to it that the “Jeffrey Tackett Bill” will pass. You’re missed by many, many people. (1996)

As I moved through the Memorial during my weekly duties, I had a chance to meet many Police Week visitors. Several had attended the Memorial event year after year, and used this time to renew bonds with friends and colleagues. For others, Police Week 2009 was the first they had attended, and they were, without fail, greatly moved by the fellowship and goodwill they found here. What was interesting to me as a museum professional was how they all used this time at the Memorial to revisit and renew their bonds with the friend or loved one they had lost. Though not all chose to express this by leaving tribute objects or written messages, many, if not most, folks did. Sometimes the meaning of an object was a bit obscure, known mainly to the family or friends who placed it there. Other objects had messages that were quite clear in their commemorative intent. All, though, were unmistakable in their need to maintain the thread of affection with the one they lost.

Jimmy – You are my son, my friend. I will love and miss you forever. Mom (2007)

Memorial items left during Police Week 2008The objects collected from 2009 Police Week will join the objects collected from previous years’ commemorations. The Museum approaches the collection of tribute objects from the Memorial in a thoughtful, respectful way. Objects are preserved to make sure they remain intact and accessible for future generations to study and contemplate. The Memorial exists to honor the fallen heroes of law enforcement, and an important part of what the Museum does is to preserve the legacy that exists in tangible form.