Reflections on War

This is a guest post by Cindy Connelly Ryan, a Preservation Science Specialist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD). Her research areas include the light sensitivity of inks, dyes and organic colorants, deterioration and stabilization of verdigris and iron gall ink, technical study of collection items, and re-creating obsolete historic recipes for artists’ materials.

Many professionals in the fields of cultural heritage, libraries, and archives are fond of quoting sayings like ‘words have power’ or ‘ideas can change the world’ to summarize the role that literature, art, shared knowledge and imagination have in shaping both public discourse and an individual’s sense of what is possible. By extension, this highlights the vital urgency of our roles in preserving and making accessible these witnesses to our collective human cultural memory.  On some days…those sentiments become more immediate. More visceral. More real.

As part of the preparation for the new Treasures Gallery’s opening exhibition, PRTD is assessing the light sensitivity of a few dozen of the selected pieces using a technique called micro-fade testing to insure their safe exhibition. I had one such day recently, analyzing the light sensitivity of two items from the Library’s collection that each, in a very different way, has changed how millions of people think about war.

The first of these was Maya Lin’s design competition submission for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

Digital photograph of Maya Lin's memorial competition drawing.

Lin, Maya Ying, Architect. Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Competition drawing. Washington D.C, 1981. Drawing on paper mounted on board: mixed media, color. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

I’m not old enough to remember the Vietnam War, though just old enough to have friends who served. And of course I have visited the Memorial – a simple, emotionally powerful site.

It consists of a chronological list of the 58,318 names of those lost in the conflict, carved into a black stone V-shaped wall which sinks gradually below the surface level of the national Mall, forming a cool and quiet space in a sunny and bustling tourist locale.

Digitial Photograph of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at night.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial at night. Photograph from National Park Service.

Highly controversial at the time, Lin’s design challenges the traditional notion of a war memorial as a valorization of the conflict, choosing instead to focus on the names and remembrance of those lost. Although it won the design contest, the backlash almost prevented it from being built. It has become one of DC’s most frequently visited sites, inspired multiple replicas across the US, influenced the design of many later memorials, and even inspired popular songs.

Lin was a student at the time, and her design submission’s simple, inexpensive materials reflect that: gray matboard, pencil, black ink, colored pencil, and hand-lettered text panels. What I did not expect was the hypnotic, compelling beauty of her sketches – vibrant, rich layered blues and greens, punctuated by the dramatic velvety black rendering of the wall. Everyone who passed through the lab that day, after a casual glance at the bench, found themselves drawn in for a closer, longer look.

Photograph of the memorial design under a microfadometer, with a microscope image.

Detail views of the Memorial design up close, and through a microscope, show the complex layered and blended blue and green media. Photo Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan

The second piece was a photograph from the personal papers of theoretical physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory during WWII and a leader of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic weapons.

Like Lin’s design sketches, the object itself is materially modest and unassuming, a simple letter-size, glossy black and white photograph. But the concept it embodies has profoundly impacted even more millions of lives.

My undergrad degree is in physics; I’ve seen the Trinity test images before, studied the underlying theory and equations, taken part in a lively philosophy department seminar on whether ‘Just War’ theory can be meaningfully applied in the era of atomic and thermonuclear weapons, and had late night conversations with friends about the personal ethics vs. professional opportunities of a defense-related internship or job offer.  None of that really prepared me for a meeting with this original photo.

I too have file drawers and folders of photos, data printouts, notebooks, and project notes from my research work, broadly analogous to Oppenheimer’s papers – in fact I was marking up a digital image of the photo for our records as I collected reflectance spectral data from the original.  I work in cultural heritage preservation science, not particle physics, yet it was easy to fall into speculation – how had he thought about, used, or referred to this photo? What had it meant to him when he held it and looked at it on the day of the test, and in the weeks and years that followed?

Photograph of the Trinity site bomb test photo during analysis.

Photograph of the Trinity site bomb test photo during analysis, showing the burned-in ‘secret’ label scratched out with a blue pen. Photo Credit: Cindy Connelly Ryan.

Without question the development of atomic weapons had profound effects both immediate and lasting, locally and globally – beginning with the residents of Hiroshima and Nagaski. Politicians past and present wrestle with the choice to disarm, stockpile, or deploy. Generations of schoolchildren grew up with ‘duck and cover’ drills. Social, diplomatic, and policy ramifications of the cold war era still shape relationships among nations world-wide. After the war, both scientists and politicians realized that the intersection of scientific advances with public policy called for more thoughtful consideration and oversight, ultimately leading to the founding of institutions such as the Atomic Energy Commission and Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists to cite just a few.

Many physicists, including Oppenheimer and others who participated in the Manhattan project, became profoundly concerned about the proliferation of energy weapons, and advocated for UN control and/or disarmament. To this day, scientists working in data mining, AI, facial recognition, public health, medicine, chemistry, and physics debate ethical questions about the applications of research to public policy and corporate decision-making, far more widely and freely than in the 1930’s and 40’s.

These two collection items, materially simple and unassuming, yet visually, intellectually and emotionally compelling, embody profoundly resonant, history-changing ideas. Working with them back-to-back made for quite a memorable day.

These are only two of the millions of items in the Library’s collections with important stories to tell, and further lives to alter.  Our work in PRTD will likely never put us in front of Congress to testify or in nomination for a Nobel prize, as Oppenheimer was, nor attract throngs of monthly visitors, as Lin’s memorial does. But our efforts ensure that these material components of their stories will endure, to touch and inspire generations to come.

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